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President Trump Again Orders Troops to the Border

Summary:
President Trump recently said that he would deploy troops to the Mexican border in response to the 3,000-4,000 Central American migrants and asylum seekers who are walking to the U.S. border.  This follows President Trump’s earlier deployment of about 4,000 National Guardsmen (2,100 troops remain) to the border to respond to another caravan earlier this year.  American Presidents have ordered troops to the border to assist in immigration enforcement several times when the flow of illegal immigrants was significantly greater than it is today.  Deploying additional troops to deal the approaching migrant caravan is unjustified and unnecessary.  Previous U.S. presidents have deployed troops to the U.S. border to assist in immigration enforcement and drug interdiction.  The first such

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President Trump recently said that he would deploy troops to the Mexican border in response to the 3,000-4,000 Central American migrants and asylum seekers who are walking to the U.S. border.  This follows President Trump’s earlier deployment of about 4,000 National Guardsmen (2,100 troops remain) to the border to respond to another caravan earlier this year.  American Presidents have ordered troops to the border to assist in immigration enforcement several times when the flow of illegal immigrants was significantly greater than it is today.  Deploying additional troops to deal the approaching migrant caravan is unjustified and unnecessary. 

Previous U.S. presidents have deployed troops to the U.S. border to assist in immigration enforcement and drug interdiction.  The first such request after World War II was in 1954 when the old Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) launched Operation Wetback (yes, that is what the government called it).  Then-Attorney General Herbert Brownell asked the U.S. Army to help round up and remove illegal immigrants.  According to Matt Matthews in his “The US Army on the Mexican Border: A Historical Perspective,” the Army refused to deploy troops for that purpose because it would disrupt training, cost too much money at a time of budget cuts, and it would have required at least a division of troops to secure the border.  Then-head of the INS General Swing remarked in 1954 that deploying U.S. Army troops on the border was a “perfectly horrible” idea that would “destroy relations with Mexico.”  It was also unnecessary. 

In 1954, the 1,079 Border Patrol agents made 1,028,246 illegal immigrant apprehensions or 953 apprehensions per agent that year along all U.S. borders.  For the entire border, Border Patrol agents collectively made 2,817 apprehensions per day in 1954 with a force that was 94 percent smaller than today’s Border Patrol.  In other words, the average Border Patrol agent apprehended 2.6 illegal immigrants per day in 1954.  Neither President Eisenhower nor the Army considered that inflow of illegal immigrants to be large enough to warrant the deployment of troops along the border despite Brownell’s request.   

Earlier in 2018, President Trump ordered about 4,000 troops to help the 16,605 Border Patrol agents on the southwest border apprehend the roughly 1,000 Central American migrants from an earlier caravan.  About 2,100 of those troops remain.  At that time, there were about 16.6 Border Patrol agents for each Central American migrant.  As for the current caravan approaching, assuming the number does not decrease any further, there are 4 to 6 Border Patrol agents for each person traveling from Central America in this caravan.  It’s likely that troops deployed on the border will outnumber the most recent caravan when (if) it arrives.   

In fiscal year 2018, Border Patrol apprehended about 396,579 illegal immigrants or about 24 per Border Patrol agent over the entire year on the southwest border, which works out to one apprehension per Border Patrol agents every 15 days.  By that measure, Border Patrol agents in 1954 individually apprehended an average of 40 times as many illegal immigrants as Border Patrol agents did in 2018.  If the current caravan makes it to the United States border, it would add about one and a half days worth of apprehensions at the 1954 level.  Border Patrol should be able to handle this comparatively small number of asylum seekers and migrants without military aid as they have done so before many times with a much smaller force.

Other Border Deployments

Since 1982, most U.S. military deployments and operations along the Mexican border were intended to counter the import of illegal drugs.  Joint Task Force 6 was deployed to the border in 1989 to aid in drug interdiction.  The regular deployment of troops for that purpose ended in 1997 after a U.S. Marine shot and killed American citizen Esequiel Hernandez Jr.  By July of that year, Secretary of Defense William Cohen suspended the use of armed soldiers on the border for anti-drug missions. 

On May 15, 2006, President Bush ordered 6,000 National Guard troops to the border as part of Operation Jump Start to provide a surge of border enforcement while the government was hiring more Border Patrol agents.  In 2006, there were about 59 apprehensions per Border Patrol agent or one per agent every four days.  Operation Jump Start ended on July 15, 2008.  In that year, there were an average of 41 apprehensions per agent or one apprehension every nine days per agent during the entire year.  President Obama also deployed 1,200 troops to the border in 2010 to assist Border Patrol, but they left in 2012.  In that year, Border Patrol agents on the southwest border individually apprehended an average of one illegal immigrant every 19 days. 

The two recent deployments to assist in enforcing immigration law along the border occurred when there were fewer apprehensions, represented by more days between each apprehension for each agent (Figure 1).  The higher the number for the blue line in Figure 1, the fewer people Border Patrol agents individually apprehend.  From about 1975 through 2006, the Border Patrol faced an annual inflow of illegal immigrants far larger than anything seen in recent years. 

Figure 1

The Average Number of Days Between Each Border Patrol Apprehension on the Southwest Border, 1975-2018

Figure 1: Average Number of Days Between Each Border Patrol Apprehension on the Southwest Border

In years and decades past, the average amount of time between Border Patrol apprehensions of illegal immigrants could be measured in hours while now it is measured in weeks.  The proposed deployment of American troops to the border at a time of low and falling illegal immigrant entries is an unnecessary waste of time and resources.  

Alex Nowrasteh
He is an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity. His popular publications have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Washington Post, the Houston Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Post, and elsewhere. His academic publications have appeared in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, the Fletcher Security Review, and Public Choice.

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