The Pentagon is preparing to “loosen the rules” that prevent military personnel from dealing with migrants entering the United States. While the scenarios being presented—from having military doctors administer emergency care, to using troops to hand out rations—seem at least benign, if not laudable, removing this barrier is raising some very serious concerns about the role of the military in border operations and whether this “loosening” isn’t threatening to end the Posse Comitatus Act (more on that later).
On Wednesday, Trump threatened a shooting war with Mexico after he claimed that Mexican soldiers had held U.S. Guardsmen at gunpoint to let drug smugglers get away. This did not happen. In the same tweet, Trump threatened to send “armed soldiers” to the border … even though the soldiers who are already there, including the ones in the not-a-drug-smuggling incident already are armed.
In the wake of that tweet, a move to “loosen the rules” for soldiers on the border seems particularly ominous. Though, as the Washington Post reports, the situations described at the moment seem distinctly nonthreatening. The plans are for 300 soldiers in specific roles, including military lawyers, doctors, cooks, and drivers, to be given a waiver from existing rules that keep troops from interacting with migrants. However, handing out a waiver in this instance raises concerns that other waivers could be handed out in situations that were much less peaceful. The Posse Comitatus Act prohibits active military personnel from conducting law enforcement activities inside the United States. However under extraordinary circumstances the military can take on such roles—such as guardsmen protecting an area from looting following a natural disaster.
Troops are already at the border because of Trump’s declaration of a “national emergency.” With waivers already being handed out, and Trump claiming American forces are under threat, the idea that military troops could be forced into any role at the border seems justified.
The underlying justification for the increased use of military forces is the build-up of asylum seekers at facilities along the border. However, it’s not really the number of immigrants causing a problem, it’s the way they are being handled. The policy of detaining families at the border is causing the build-up, stressing local facilities, and generating needless risk and expense.
The large build up of those seeking entry has caused the Department of Homeland Security to complain that agents have been “pulled away from their law enforcement duties because they are so busy caring for migrant parents and children.” Making the idea that military forces might be used to “back fill” the missing agents more likely.