The Pentagon is preparing to approve a loosening of rules that bar troops from interacting with migrants entering the United States, expanding the military’s involvement in President Donald Trump’s operation along the southern border.
Senior Defense Department officials have recommended that acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan approve a new request from the Department of Homeland Security to provide military lawyers, cooks and drivers to assist with handling a surge of migrants along the southern border.
The move would require authorizing waivers for more than 300 troops to a long-standing policy prohibiting military personnel from coming into contact with migrants.
The Pentagon has approved only one previous request to waive the policy since the beginning of Trump’s recent border buildup, in order to provide migrants with emergency medical care if required. There are about 2,900 active-duty and 2,000 National Guard troops along the border.
Shanahan is expected to sign the request Friday.
According to internal Pentagon documents obtained by The Washington Post, the requested expansion of military activity along the border would cost an estimated $21.9 million through the end of fiscal year 2019.
In a sign of the sensitivities surrounding a move that might be seen as putting troops in a law enforcement role, the documents note that military personnel would remain in a “segregated driver’s compartment” when driving migrants to detention facilities. Customs and Border Protection officials would provide security on those trips.
Likewise, when they are asked to distribute food to migrants in detention facilities and periodically “document the provision of care” of those detained migrants, they would be accompanied at all times by law enforcement personnel.
As part of the proposal, military attorneys would assist with deportation hearings in New Mexico, Louisiana and New York.
All of those activities, the documents note, require Shanahan to “grant a temporary exception to the ‘no contact with migrants’ policy.’” The documents also note that military personnel are barred from undertaking law enforcement activities in keeping with the Posse Comitatus Act.
The request comes as an unprecedented surge of Central American families arriving at the U.S. southern border pushes American agents to “the breaking point,” according to DHS officials. Last month, U.S. authorities processed more than 103,000 migrants, the highest one-month total in more than a decade.
Border Patrol officials say overwhelmed agents are being pulled away from their law enforcement duties because they are so busy caring for migrant parents and children. The shortage of drivers and agents who can chaperone migrants to hospitals has been especially acute.
In the El Paso area, where the strain on Border Patrol resources has been greatest, groups of migrant families who cross the border to surrender to authorities sometimes wait for hours because there are no agents to pick them up with vans and buses.
CBP officers have been reassigned from ports of entry to drive vehicles and perform other support roles for border agents, but that has exacerbated wait times for commercial trucks and passenger vehicles crossing from Mexico.
Maria Sachetti and Paul Sonne contributed to this report.