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Pentagon prepping $22M expansion to southern border mission, eases migrant contact rules

Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, and Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tour a section of the US-Mexico border at Santa Teresa Station in Sunland Park, N.M., Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019. (DoD Photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Dominique A. Pineiro)
April 26, 2019

In an effort to expand the U.S. military presence at the southern border, the Pentagon is expected to ease rules that prohibit some service members’ contact with migrants.

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan is preparing to approve a Department of Homeland Security request on Friday that will authorize contact waivers for lawyers, cooks, and drivers in the military so they can deploy to the border to assist with the migrant crisis, defense officials told The Washington Post.

The waivers would be granted for more than 300 troops, bypassing long-term rules that forbid contact between military personnel and the migrants.

The request is part of a $21.9 million military expansion effort on the southern border for 2019.

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Cooks would be tasked with distributing food to migrants held in detention centers and as well as occasionally documenting the care received by migrants.

Drivers would transport migrants to and from detention centers while being in a segregated compartment and accompanied by Customs and Border Protection officials.

Military lawyers would be tasked with deportation hearings for migrants in New Mexico, Louisiana, and New York.

Aside from detailing what the troops would be permitted to do, the documents also stipulate what they cannot do. The documents specifically state that military service members cannot conduct law enforcement activities due to the Posse Comitatus Act.

The act, passed in 1898, prohibits U.S. troops from acting in the role of law enforcement while in U.S. territory. The intent of the law was to prevent federal troops from exercising control over states.

The Pentagon has been careful in crafting language so that military personnel’s duties have not encroached on the act, something they also did in Nov. 2018 when authorizing military personnel to protect border agents.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) apprehended and blocked more than 103,000 illegal immigrants in March alone, an increase of 38 percent from February, or 148 percent from March 2018, the Washington Examiner reported. It’s also the highest number in a decade.

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“Our capacity is already severely strained, but these increases will overwhelm the system entirely,” Former DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in March. “This is not a ‘manufactured’ crisis. This is truly an emergency.”

CBP agents have been pulled from ports of entry on the southern border and reassigned to migrant housing where detention centers are overwhelmed. At least 750 border agents were moved from their southern entry ports, and another 100 agents were expected to be pulled from entry ports on the border with Canada.