The Pentagon said on Monday it is sending 5,200 troops, some armed, to the Southwest border this week in an extraordinary military operation to stop Central American migrants traveling north in two caravans that were still hundreds of miles from the U.S. The number of troops is more than double the 2,000 who are in Syria fighting the Islamic State group.
President Donald Trump, eager to focus voters on immigration in the lead-up to the midterm elections November 6, stepped up his warnings about the caravans, tweeting: This is an invasion of our Country and our Military is waiting for you!
His warning came as the Pentagon began executing Operation Faithful Patriot, described by the commander of U.S. Northern Command as an effort to help Customs and Border Protection stiffen defenses at and near legal entry points. Advanced helicopters will allow border protection agents to swoop down on migrants trying to cross illegally, he said.
We're going to secure the border, Air Force Gen. Terrence O'Shaughnessy, the Northern Command leader, said at a news conference. He spoke alongside Kevin McAleenan, commissioner of Customs and Border Protection.
Eight hundred troops already are on their way to southern Texas, O'Shaughnessy said, and their numbers will top 5,200 by week's end. He said troops would focus first on Texas, followed by Arizona and then California.
The number of people in the first caravan has dwindled to 3,500 from about 7,000, though a second one was gaining steam and marred by violence. About 600 migrants in the second group tried to cross a bridge from Guatemala to Mexico en masse on Monday but were met by ranks of Mexican federal police who blocked them from entering. The riverbank standoff followed a more violent confrontation on Sunday when the migrants used sticks and rocks against Mexico police. One migrant was killed Sunday night by a head wound, but the cause was unclear.
The first group passed through the spot via the river — wading or on rafts — and was advancing through southern Mexico. That group appeared to begin as a collection of about 160 who decided to band together in Honduras for protection against the gangs who prey on migrants traveling alone and snowballed as the group moved north. They are mostly from Honduras, where it started, as well as El Salvador and Guatemala.
Overall, they are poor, carrying the belongings that fit into a knapsack and fleeing gang violence or poverty. It's possible there are criminals mixed in, but Trump has not substantiated his claim that members of the MS-13 gang, in particular, are among them.
President Trump's dark description of the caravan belied the fact that any migrants who complete the long trek to the southern U.S. border already face major hurdles, both physical and bureaucratic, to being allowed into the United States. Migrants are entitled under both U.S. and international law to apply for asylum, but it may take a while to make a claim. There is already a bottleneck of asylum seekers at some U.S. border crossings, in some cases as long as five weeks.