WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
1 Aug 2014 | Commentary

Unaccompanied Children Are No Reason to Send the National Guard to the Border

Five reasons to reject current proposals to send the National Guard to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Thousands of unaccompanied children from Central America are turning themselves in to Border Patrol agents. Some U.S. political leaders want to send neither immigration judges nor social workers, but National Guard troops to the border with Mexico. Texas Governor Rick Perry is deploying 1,000 Guardsmen to the Rio Grande Valley region of south Texas, where the vast majority of children fleeing violence first arrive. The House Republican version of supplemental funding bill (H.R. 5230) would allocate US$35 million for a National Guard deployment at the command of border-state governors. Last week, the White House sent an assessment team to Texas to gauge the need for a National Guard presence.

Using the National Guard may be clever politics, as it makes politicians—including aspiring 2016 presidential candidates—appear tough before hardline constituencies. But it is terrible policy, not least because neither the National Guard nor any other military body should ever be used for domestic political ends.

1. Using soldiers for domestic law enforcement is a grave step. It must never be taken lightly. Governor Perry refuses to place an end date on his National Guard deployment, dismissing concerns as “a question … of when you want to leave the battlefield.” This idea of an open-ended military mission, led by a governor who refers to his own state as a “battlefield,” 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 at the border “emergency” enough to make an exception to this tradition?

2. Even many of those proposing Guard deployments say “no.” The National Guard troops will likely end up playing marginal, behind-the-scenes support roles. Gov. Perry, for instance, has decided for now not to give the Texas Guardsmen arrest powers. “When asked if their weapons would be loaded,” the Associated Press reports, Texas Adjutant General John Nichols “would say only that ammunition would be in magazines.”

While it’s still not clear exactly what they will do, or how their success will be measured, it appears that Texas Guardsmen will mainly be there to establish a dissuasive presence that sends “a powerful message,” in Gov. Perry’s words. Most Guardsmen will simply watch for illegal border-crossers. When they see them, their job will be to alert other authorities, like Border Patrol or the Texas Department of Public Safety. This is a bizarre bit of circular reasoning: the Guard will call the same agencies that Perry and other political leaders say are already overwhelmed by unaccompanied migrant children.

3. The Guard would be deployed to deal with a situation caused by children asking for protection from Border agents—not criminals. Nearly all of these children are trying to be apprehended. They are not trying to evade capture. Texas officials insist that the Guardsmen are “not going to be dealing with the children at all,” and that any migrant who approaches a Guard member “will be directed to the U.S. Border Patrol.” According to this explanation, Border Patrol will continue to dedicate much of its time processing newly arrived children, while National Guard personnel watch over the border. If they encounter children, though, the Guardsmen can only alert the already overextended local Border Patrol. This does not sound well-thought out.

4. Other agencies could fill existing gaps in south Texas, and can probably do so more effectively than the National Guard. “There may be many other organizations that might more appropriately be called upon” than the National Guard, H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau during most of the George W. Bush administration, told The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent. “If you’re talking about search and rescue, maintaining the rule of law or restoring conditions back to normal after a natural disaster or a catastrophe, the Guard is superbly suited to that. I’m not so sure that what we’re dealing with in scope and causation right now [at the border] would make it the ideal choice.”

Other, more appropriate agencies include Border Patrol itself, which is facing a “surge” of unaccompanied minors in only one of its nine sectors along the U.S.-Mexico border – in the other eight border sectors, illegal border crossings are near 40-year lows. Texas media report that the state Department of Public Safety, and border county sheriffs’ departments, would welcome resources that are instead getting diverted to the Guard.

5. Recent National Guard deployments have carried high costs with little to show for the effort. Gov. Perry’s deployment will cost Texas taxpayers about US$12 million per month, the Associated Press reports. At that rate, the House bill’s US$35 million would only reimburse Texas for about three months of its open-ended Guard mission.

Using the Guard is expensive, as the federal government found after two deployments in 2006—08 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. Notably, neither the Texas state police authorities nor the National Guard authorities recommended a Guard deployment before Gov. Perry announced it on July 21. San Antonio Congressman Joaquín Castro (D-Texas) criticized Perry’s decision in a letter to the governor, saying it “appears to be rooted in politics more than sound public policy.”

The State of Texas is going to pay a hefty price tag for its National Guard deployment. The deployment will likely accomplish very little. It appears to be more of a political advertisement than a policy solution. In the final analysis, 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.