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Explainer: Why Biden is Sending Troops to US-Mexico Border

A member of the Texas National Guard installs a barbed-wire barrier on the border between El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, as seen from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, May 3, 2023.
A member of the Texas National Guard installs a barbed-wire barrier on the border between El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, as seen from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, May 3, 2023.

The Biden administration is sending 1,500 active-duty military personnel to the U.S.-Mexico border, as it expects an increase in migrant arrivals after May 11 when coronavirus pandemic-era restrictions known as Title 42 ends.

The troops will support U.S. Customs and Border Protection efforts on the border for about 90 days, Pentagon press secretary Brigadier General Pat Ryder said in a statement this week.

Why is this happening now?

For more than two years, the Biden administration kept in place at the U.S. southern border a Trump administration order using a public health policy known as Title 42. The policy allowed the U.S. to quickly expel migrants to their countries of origin or Mexican border towns. Title 42 was implemented in March 2020; since then, migrants have been expelled more than 2.7 million times, many of them more than once.

On April 1, 2022, the administration announced the policy would end on May 23, 2022, giving U.S. officials time to prepare for what they expected to be an increase in migrant arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border. But 19 Republican-led states were against lifting Title 42 and fought to keep it in place through various lawsuits.

In January of this year, with COVID-related deaths and cases declining, the administration announced that a Public Health Emergency declared in March 2020 would end on May 11, ending with it several extraordinary measures including the rationale for keeping Title 42 in place.

What Is Title 42?
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To keep the existing policy in place, immigration advocates said, the Biden administration would need to issue a new Title 42 order or reverse its decision to lift the Public Health Emergency on May 11.

U.S. immigration officials estimate that starting in May, migrant arrivals along the U.S.-Mexico border could increase to 10,000 to 13,000 a day from the current 5,000 to 8,000.

Is sending troops to the border something new?

No. Former President Donald Trump deployed active-duty troops to the border in October 2018 to support U.S. Border Patrol personnel and started to withdraw them at the end 2018.

What will the troops do? Will they detain migrants?

No. Troops will do “ground-based detection and monitoring, data entry, and warehouse support. … Military personnel will not directly participate in law enforcement activities. This deployment to the border is consistent with other forms of military support to DHS over many years,” Ryder said in his statement Tuesday.

What is the agreement between Pentagon and DHS?

For the request for troops to be approved, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security agreed to work with Congress and the White House "to develop a plan and implement solutions to staffing and funding shortfalls to maintain border security and the safe, orderly, and humane processing of migrants that do not involve the continued use of DOD personnel and resources after FY2023," according to Pentagon spokesperson Air Force Lt. Col. Devin Robinson.

The Pentagon also requested quarterly updates from DHS on how the agency is expected to staff its border mission without asking for assistance from service members throughout this fiscal year.

What else has the Biden administration done to prepare for the end of Title 42?

The administration recently announced it would open immigration processing centers in Latin America to provide migrants access to legal pathways to the U.S., including the refugee admissions resettlement program, and prescreening for other programs such as parole, family reunification or existing labor pathways.

U.S. immigration officials said that after May 11, all migrants who make the dangerous journey to the U.S.-Mexico border will be processed under Title 8, the existing federal law covering immigration. Those arriving at the border without documents or trying to enter between ports of entry can be removed without their cases being decided by an immigration court, which are called expedited removal proceedings.

Title 8 also carries stiff consequences, including being barred from reentry for at least five years and potential criminal prosecution for repeated attempts to cross unlawfully.

DHS has 24,000 Customs and Border Patrol agents and officers along the U.S.-Mexico border. The agency has also hired more than 2,000 additional non-uniformed personnel to work in processing and facility operations and is expected to hire more than 1,000 more in fiscal 2024.

Are Mexico and the U.S. working together?

Yes. The United States and Mexico agreed on a new plan to control the increase of unauthorized border crossings while also allowing migrants to enter the U.S. on humanitarian grounds.

Under the plan, the U.S. will accept migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela as part of a humanitarian parole program, while Mexico has agreed to accept migrants from those four nations who tried to enter the United States illegally.

What have critics said about these measures?

Bilal Askaryar, interim campaign manager of Welcome With Dignity, said in a statement that those exercising their legal right to seek asylum should be “welcomed with dignity, not troops."

“Instead of sending U.S. troops to intimidate people seeking safety and attempt to satisfy his critics, President Biden should send funding to local communities eager to welcome their new neighbors.”

During a press conference Wednesday, Republican senators called on the Biden administration "to reverse course and keep the Title 42 immigration policy in place."

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said they have asked Democrats not to repeal Title 42.

“It's been used 2.3 million times to expel people who came here illegally. … It's been used by the administration probably more than any tool in the toolbox, and they're taking it out of the toolbox. One of the most effective tools they have to deter illegal immigration,” Graham said.

In a press conference Wednesday, Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy director at the American Immigration Council, told reporters, “Rather than focus reactively only on temporary reductions of the number of people crossing the border, we need to address the long-standing shortfalls in the system and make the fixes necessary to bring order to the system in the long term.”