U.S. Border Military Deployments

Shortly before the Midterms, Donald Trump ordered the U.S. military to the border in response to the “invaders” heading to America. Many, including some Republicans, have called the military deployment a “stunt”. The so-called “invaders” – migrants in a caravan trekking through México – didn’t make it to the border until after the Midterms. Even then, they’ve trickled in, in small groups. But the military deployment remains there. This is not the first time that the U.S. has deployed its military to enforce border controls.

The last time the U.S. military was deployed to the U.S.-México border in response to an “invasion” was in the 1920’s in response to the Mexican Revolution and Pancho Villa. The deployment evolved into policing operations to control contraband and cattle rustling, but it soon fizzled out as local law enforcement took on that role.

But at the same time, immigration once again became a central issue for national politics. This time it was Mexicans who were being singled out by anti-immigrants. The U.S. Border Patrol was established in 1924 to control immigration through national borders. The shortages of labor during World War II led to American’s welcoming Mexican immigrant labor. The Bracero Program was created to regularize Mexican labor.

By the 1950’s the country once again decided that immigrants were a burden to the country. Mexican immigrant labor was singled out for low wages and the U.S. government wanted to curtail it. In 1954, U.S. Attorney General Herbert Brownell launched Operation Wetback, a government initiative to round up Mexican immigrants and deport them to México. Many U.S. citizens of Mexican decent were also rounded up and deported illegally. Brownell wanted the U.S. Army to help in the roundup and deportation efforts.

The U.S. Army rejected the request, much to the dismay of Brownell. Army General Joseph Swing called the request “a perfectly horrible” use of the military. The U.S. Army did not participate in Operation Wetback.

However, the passage of the Defense Authorization Act of 1982 relaxed military rules regarding the Posse Comitatus Act to allow the military greater participation on the War on Drugs. The Act allowed the military to provide logistical support – such as information and intelligence – as well as access to military equipment to federal law enforcement via federal loan programs. Access to military training for law enforcement was also included.

The Act, however, did not allow the U.S. military direct participation in law enforcement activities. Thus, military personnel cannot directly interdict immigrants or illicit drug and other contraband crossing the border.

In 1989, the Defense Authorization Act of that year now allowed the military to provide equipment to local and state law enforcement also giving the military the right to operate its own equipment in support of law enforcement if it was for the War on Drugs. Also, in 1989, Joint Task Force-Six (JTF-6) was created.

JTF-6 created a national headquarters on the Southwest United States to plan programs with local, state and federal authorities to stop illegal drugs from entering the country. Both active and reserve military personnel were now working directly in drug interdiction, a law enforcement task. It was only a matter of time before U.S. military personnel engaged in a gun battle along the border.

On December 13, 1989, U.S. Marines training Border Patrol Agents in Nogales Arizona encountered drug traffickers. When the Marines sent up a flare, the drug traffickers fired at the Marines. The Marines fired back after the Border Patrol Agent in command issued the order. No one was injured in the encounter, although the flare destroyed 300 acres of federally protected land after starting a fire.

In January of 1997, a soldier killed a drug smuggler after his observation point was shot at. A few months later, in May, U.S. citizen Ezequiel Hernandez, Jr. was killed by an American soldier after his target practice in the desert was mistaken for an attack on soldiers operating in the area.

The ensuing outrage led to the suspension of military personnel operating on the border. In July of 1997, Secretary of Defense William Cohen suspended the use of armed military personnel on the border. Cohen modified his policy in 1999, authorizing the deployment of armed military personnel with the specific permission of the secretary of defense.

After the 911 attacks, joint military-law enforcement cooperation increased. In 2004, JTF-6, based in El Paso, Texas, was renamed Joint Task Force North (JTF North), expanding its mission to include homeland security. JTF North continued to provide logistical and training support to law enforcement.

On May 15, 2006, George W. Bush deployed 6,000 National Guard personnel to the border. Operation Jump Start was used as a stopgap measure to disrupt illegal border crossings until the Border Patrol could be manned with an additional 6,000 agents. The military personnel were tasked with surveillance, intelligence and building border barriers along the border. The Guard units were not deployed in direct support of law enforcement activities.

In November 2018, the Trump Administration deployed around 5,200 military personnel to the border in response to the migrant caravan. Ostensibly the deployment would repel “invaders” but they have been relegated to the traditional support role the 2006 deployment used in support of law enforcement without allowing them direct contact with migrants crossing the border.

Like previous military deployments to the border against immigrants, the political rhetoric remains about directly repelling “invaders” while the reality is that the military personnel is providing logistical support to federal agents without directly enforcing immigration laws.

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