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US troops remain at southern border despite waning migration, as coronavirus spreads elsewhere

U.S Soldiers with 541st Engineer Company, Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force 7, position concertina wire on a practice barricade at Naval Air Facility El Centro in California, Dec. 4, 2018. U.S. Northern Command is providing military support to the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection to secure the Southern border of the United States. (Sgt. Asia J. Sorenson/U.S. Marine Corps)

The United States is in a state of emergency, with thousands of active-duty military and National Guard troops deployed — and not because of the coronavirus.

Under the “national emergency” that President Trump declared in February 2019, roughly 5,200 troops remain at the U.S. southern border to assist in detecting undocumented migrants, though apprehensions are at the lowest levels in years. While other National Guard and military units respond to the rapidly spreading virus, the troops at the border are authorized to stay there through Sept. 30, according to the Defense Department.

The Pentagon “has no plans to pull units off the border for coronavirus response,” Lt. Col. Chris Mitchell told The Times in a statement Monday. The mission has cost more than $500 million, he said.

The troops mainly perform services in support of government border agencies because federal law prohibits the U.S. military from domestic law enforcement activities. Reports of some troops’ duties — including, at one point, painting a border barrier “to improve the aesthetic appearance of the wall” — have led to criticism from lawmakers and former officials that the military is being used for the president’s political agenda.

David Lapan, formerly an official at the Defense and Homeland Security departments and now a vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said that in a department as large as the Pentagon, the border deployment isn’t likely to inhibit its ability to help against the pandemic.

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“But,” Lapan wrote in an email to The Times, “the larger issue is the absence of a real mission at the [southwest] border because apprehensions have steadily decreased and new coronavirus measures taken by the administration are further restricting movements across the border.”

Last week, the administration halted most traffic at the border, restricting all nonessential travel to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Though the United States has far more confirmed cases of infection than Mexico or countries farther south, the Homeland Security Department said it will block almost all migrants, including asylum seekers, from entering, whether at an official port of entry or elsewhere, and will return them to Mexico or their country of origin.

Lapan added that the troops and military funding “could be put to better use in responding to coronavirus as well as to true national security threats.”

Trump’s declaration of a border emergency last year was part of his fight with Congress over funding for his proposed wall, a showdown that led to the longest partial government shutdown in U.S. history. Since then, the administration has diverted about $15 billion from military accounts and other federal funding for border barrier work, according to a March 13 status report by Customs and Border Protection and the Army Corps of Engineers.

The Corps continues to work with the Homeland Security Department, primarily updating and replacing old fencing. The administration has built only two miles of barriers where none existed before, according to the report. John B. Mennell, the assistant chief at U.S. Border Patrol headquarters, said that construction schedules have not been affected by COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.

As part of the military’s separate mission to help against the virus, the Pentagon is planning to send military field hospitals to Seattle and New York City later this week to treat non-coronavirus patients, freeing up bed space in civilian hospitals, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said at news conference Monday. The Navy hospital ship Mercy, based in San Diego, has been deployed to Los Angeles to provide extra beds for patients, according to the chief of naval operations.

Trump announced on Sunday that he had authorized the federal government to pay for National Guard deployments in California, New York and Washington. On Friday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom had deployed the California National Guard to assist food banks statewide.

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© 2020 the Los Angeles Times