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Trump Defends Deployment of US Troops Sent to Southern Border

Members of the U.S. military install multiple tiers of concertina wire along the banks of the Rio Grande near the Juarez-Lincoln Bridge at the U.S.-Mexico border, Nov. 16, 2018, in Laredo, Texas.

U.S. President Donald Trump again defended sending U.S. troops to the southern border with Mexico, questioning the migrants' motives for making the perilous journey, citing a strong U.S. economy.

Speaking with reporters at the White House House Saturday morning before departing for California to tour the devastation from wildfires burning in the state, the president said, "Yeah, we have a tremendous military force in the south, on the border, on the southern border. We have large numbers of people trying to get into our country. I must say the reason it's increased so much is because we're doing so well as opposed to the rest of the world. And if you look at south of our border, it's not doing so well.

"But regardless, we have millions of people on line to get into our country legally, and those people have preference. They have to have preference. They've been waiting for a long time, they've done it legally."

Trump continued, "They're coming up and they're talking about, oh, their great fear, oh, their problems with their country, but they're all waving their country's flag. What is that all about? If they have such fear and such problems and they hate their country, why do we see all the flags being waved for Guatemala, for Honduras, for El Salvador? We're seeing flags all over the place. Why are they waving flags? This has nothing to do with asylum, this has to do with getting into our country illegally. And we have to know who wants to come into our country."

The number of U.S. troops on the border with Mexico has reached its upper limit, top Pentagon officials said earlier this week.

More than 5,800 active duty and 2,100 National Guard troops are currently deployed to help U.S. Customs and Border Protection strengthen barriers, build housing, operate aircraft and other activities intended to help the U.S. Border Patrol. Earlier this week, President Trump said the force might be larger.

"We're pretty much peaked in terms of the number of people that are down there," Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan told reporters at the Pentagon.

The troops were sent to the U.S. southern border at the request of the Department of Homeland Security. Shanahan said the troops may stay through Dec. 15. The military is legally prohibited from domestic law enforcement, such as arresting migrants crossing the border.

Angel, a 13-year-old migrant from Honduras, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America trying to reach the U.S., looks towards the United States past the border fence in Tijuana, Mexico, Nov. 15, 2018.
Angel, a 13-year-old migrant from Honduras, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America trying to reach the U.S., looks towards the United States past the border fence in Tijuana, Mexico, Nov. 15, 2018.

In the meantime, several hundred Central American migrants arrived midweek in the Mexican border city of Tijuana after a month of traveling away from poverty and violence at home, in hopes of entering the United States.

About 800 migrants are now in Tijuana. Many said they would stay there and wait for the rest of their caravan to arrive and for leaders to advise them of their options for seeking asylum in the United States.Some of the early arrivals went to the border fence to celebrate.

The migrants in Tijuana got a generally warm greeting from locals, but some were met with hostility from an upper middle-class beach neighborhood.

Residents shouted, "You're not welcome!" and "Get out!" to a group of about 100 Central Americans. Police kept the two sides apart. One protester said the hostility had nothing to do with race, but with safety.

A Tijuana city official said the city is not prepared for such a large number of arrivals. Most migrant shelters are already full. The official said she hopes the Mexican federal government will offer the migrants asylum and jobs.

The bulk of the migrant caravan of about 4,000 people, mostly Honduras, is making its way through the state of Sonora and is expected to arrive soon in Tijuana.

The San Ysidro port linking Tijuana to the U.S. city of San Diego, is the busiest crossing on the border. But it only processes about 100 asylum claims per day, meaning those in the caravan who seek that route face a long wait.

Trump has sharply criticized the caravans, casting them as a "national emergency."He signed a proclamation last week declaring migrants who enter the country illegally ineligible for asylum.That goes against federal laws stating anyone is eligible for asylum, no matter how he or she entered the country.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups quickly filed a legal challenge and sought an injunction against the new rules while the case makes its way through the courts.A federal judge has set a hearing on the injunction for Nov. 19.

In addition to the caravan at or nearing the border, two others have made their way to Mexico City with more than 2,000 people.

Mexico said last week it had issued about 2,700 temporary visas to individuals and families, allowing them to work while their refugee applications proceed.

VOA Pentagon Correspondent Carla Babb contributed to this story.