This post is an updated version of a commentary first published on August 1, 2014. See the original here.
As usually happens in the spring, the migration of unaccompanied children and families fleeing violence in Central America is on the rise. These asylum-seekers are arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, even as apprehensions of migrants are at a 46-year low. In reaction to television news reports, the president of the United States wants to send National Guard troops to the border with Mexico. On April 3, 2018, President Trump said, “We are preparing for the military to secure our border between Mexico and the United States,” during a news conference with the presidents of three Baltic states.
This is not the first time that politicians have discussed such proposals (see a previous version of this post from 2014). Using the National Guard may be clever politics, as it makes politicians appear tough before hardline constituencies. President Trump is likely well aware of this: he may still be fuming over the $1.2 trillion spending bill that he signed two weeks ago, which soundly rejected the White House’s immigration policy proposals. By saying he is going to deploy the military, Trump is arguably signaling to his political base that he intends to continue pushing for a hardline approach to immigration.
Nevertheless, proposing to deploy the National Guard to the U.S.-Mexico border is terrible policy, not least because neither the National Guard nor any other military body should ever be used for domestic political ends.
Here are four reasons to reject current proposals to send the National Guard to the U.S.-Mexico border
1. Using soldiers for domestic law enforcement is a grave step. It must never be taken lightly. The White House has not yet clarified whether a National Guard deployment would even have a start and end date. The idea of the White House pushing through an open-ended military mission is frankly terrifying, and sharply at odds with American democratic custom.
Ever since passage of the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, the United States has avoided using soldiers as police except in the most serious short-term situations, like natural disasters or riots. Though they do not serve full time, make no mistake: Guardsmen are soldiers. Their uniforms and weapons are indistinguishable from those of the regular U.S. Army. While they are brave, often selfless public servants, Guardsmen are not trained to protect and serve populations using a minimum of violence. They are not trained to enforce immigration law and they are not police. They are trained for combat and deployed to war zones.
In our democracy, it is very unusual for soldiers to stop civilians for questioning, search and seizure—as would happen if they man road checkpoints—much less actually to pursue, arrest, detain, or interrogate civilians on U.S. soil, as state governors can order them to do. Is a high presence of foreign children and families at the border enough of an “emergency” to make an exception to this tradition?
2. What role would National Guard troops play at the U.S.-Mexico border? Simply put, there is no migration crisis there. Last year, the average Border Patrol agent apprehended 18 migrants. That’s one apprehension about every three weeks. What would Guardsmen do there?
Say National Guard troops are deployed in order to play primarily marginal, behind-the-scenes support roles. Let’s say the Guardsmen are deployed primarily in order to send “a powerful message,” as Governor Rick Perry put it when he deployed Guardsmen to the Texas border with Mexico in 2014. If Guardsmen are there watching for illegal border-crossers, will they have the power to make arrests? Or will their job be to alert other authorities, like Border Patrol? This is a bizarre bit of reasoning: the military is needed to support the Border Patrol, when there is already no shortage of Border Patrol agents, and there are no threats that demand a massive increase of agents at the border.
3. The Guard would be deployed to deal with a situation caused by children and families asking for protection from border agents—not criminals. Nearly all of these children and family units are trying to be apprehended. They are not trying to evade capture. Many are fleeing violence in El Salvador and Honduras, which rank as two of the most violent countries in the world. They are looking to turn themselves in to border agents in order to apply for asylum.
4. Recent National Guard deployments have carried high costs with little to show for the effort.
Using the Guard is expensive, as the federal government found after two deployments in 2006-2008 and 2010-2011, a period when the civilian Border Patrol was in the process of doubling in size. As of September 2011, the cumulative cost of these deployments was US$1.35 billion, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found [PDF]. The larger of these two deployments—6,000 troops from 2006 to 2008—managed to assist in only 11.7 percent of undocumented migrant apprehensions and 9.4 percent of all marijuana seizures at the border. The second—1,200 troops from 2010 to 2011, with a far smaller presence that continues today—“helped Border Patrol agents apprehend 25,514 illegal immigrants at a cost of $160 million—or $6,271 for each person caught,” according to the Washington Post. This is not an impressive cost-benefit calculation.
All told, the current proposals to use the National Guard smell of political expediency more than good policymaking. Taxpayers would pay a hefty price tag for doing so, and the deployment would likely accomplish very little. It appears to be more of a political advertisement than a policy solution. All in all, deploying the National Guard is expensive, disruptive to Guardsmen’s families and employers, and—especially when done in an open-ended way—damaging to U.S. civil-military relations. This is absolutely the wrong way to go.
Elyssa Pachico contributed to this article.