President Trump said Thursday he will militarize the border “in a heartbeat” ordering troops to go beyond logistical support and patrol the border alongside Border Patrol agents if his latest plans to crack down on the migrant caravans don’t pan out.
The president, in an interview with The Washington Times, said he watched the caravans overwhelm Mexican police and troops to break into that country last month, and said he won’t allow them to do that here.
Asked if that means expanding the mission of up to 15,000 troops he may eventually deploy to include picking up arms and patrolling, he said it may get to that point.
“If it’s necessary I will do that in a heartbeat,” he said, adding that he hasn’t decided on that yet.
He detailed his tough stance just minutes before he held a press conference to announce a series of new moves designed to change the calculus of the migrant caravans and tens of thousands of other men, women and children from Central America eyeing the trip north.
He said he’ll sign an executive order next week curtailing the ability of migrants to sneak across the southwest border and then claim asylum, saying only people who come to official ports of entry at the U.S.-Mexico boundary will be allowed to lodge claims.
Mr. Trump also said the military will be building tent-city detention facilities for people who do cross the border without authorization. He said there’s a lack of detention space right now, so hundreds of thousands of migrants have been released into communities on the hope that they’ll return for their court dates. They often do not, instead disappearing into the shadows.
“You will see that the numbers of people trying to get in will be greatly reduced,” he said.
The president was short on details of the asylum change.
Immigrant-rights activists questioned how he would achieve his goal, saying U.S. law allows anyone on American soil to claim asylum no matter how they entered the country.
“The administration’s unprecedented efforts to intimidate with military force all those who come to our border and to undermine the legal process for obtaining asylum are illegal and immoral,” said Jeanne Atkinson, executive director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network.
Mr. Trump brushed aside those complaints.
“This is totally legal,” he told reporters. “Nobody’s even questioning that.”
The president has clearly been closely tracking news about the migrant caravans making their way north, telling The Times and later the press conference about the violence that broke out as the migrants pushed past Mexican authorities.
“They went to war with the Mexican police and the Mexican military, and they broke through,” he told The Times. “These are not angels. These are some tough — not all— there’s some tough, very tough people in there. The second caravan is loaded with them.”
The Pentagon has already announced plans to sent 5,200 active-duty troops to the border to help fly Border Patrol agents, build infrastructure such as the tent cities, and provide other logistical support.
Mr. Trump said earlier this week that number could grow to 15,000.
Those units that regularly carry weapons will be allowed to deploy with them. But as of now, none of the troops will engage in actual enforcement.
The president said that may change, and in particular he may authorize troops to use force.
“Hopefully that won’t be necessary. If it is necessary, I will do that immediately,” he told The Times.
Later, he told reporters at the press conference that migrants who attempt to use rocks to attack U.S. authorities will be treated as if they were using guns.
That was an apparent reference to the migrants in one of the caravans who pelted Mexican police with rocks.
Congressional Democrats and immigration advocates said the president’s press conference was less about making policy and more about stoking the electorate just before Election Day.
“The American people won’t be fooled by this outright propaganda and non-stop lies,” said Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, the ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee.
Yet the numbers suggest there is a growing problem at the border.
Fiscal year 2018, which ended Sept. 30, was the worst year on record for illegal immigration by families, mostly from Central America.
More than 100,000 parents and children traveling as families were nabbed sneaking into the U.S., and nearly 50,000 more showed up at ports of entry without authorization but demanding to enter. Another 58,000 children traveling on their own, without parents, were also snared.
Republicans say the families in particular are being drawn by weak U.S. policies, both in law and in court rulings, that push for fast release into the communities. Of the families arrested in 2017, more than 98 percent still remained in the U.S. as of last month, Homeland Security says.
The president said under his new policy the families will be held, in tent-city facilities if need be, until they can be deported.
“We’re going to no longer release. We’re going to catch, we’re no longer going to release,” he said.
It’s the second time this year that Mr. Trump has said catch-and-release is over.
In the spring his administration announced a zero-tolerance border policy that was supposed to pursue criminal charges against any adult who attempted to sneak in across the U.S.-Mexico border.
That included parents jumping the border with their children. But when they were prosecuted, their children were separated and turned over to social services agencies — sparking a major crisis for the administration.
Mr. Trump quickly backed down, signing an executive order canceling separations — and effectively ending the zero-tolerance policy.
It’s not clear what will change with the tent cities, since under court rulings families still must be released from custody after 20 days.
• Dave Boyer contributed to this article.
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