US troops dispatched by Donald Trump to the US-Mexico border have started erecting fences and laying out razor wire, a purported defence against Central American migrants, but which have been dismissed as a “political stunt” on the eve of midterm elections.
Images from the US border town of Hidalgo, Texas, located on the banks of the Rio Grande, show armed soldiers normally based at Fort Riley, Kansas, erecting fences and laying rolls of wire close to the site of the McAllen-Hidalgo International Bridge. The troops – the first of an anticipated 7,000-strong deployment – were from the 97th Military Police Battalion, according to a Getty photographer.
Mr Trump has in recent days vowed to send thousands of troops south to help secure the border against what he has termed a possible “invasion” of migrants from countries such as El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, all of which suffer from chronic levels of violence and grinding poverty.
The controversial deployment is one of several ways the president has been seizing on the issue of illegal immigration in what has widely been seen as an attempt to energise and motivate supporters ahead of election day.
At one point this week, Mr Trump threatened to order US troops to shoot any migrants who threw stones at soldiers, something he subsequently moved away from.
Yet he tweeted: “This is an invasion of our country and our military is waiting for you!”
Maj Mark Lazane, a spokesman for US Northern Command, confirmed on Saturday that 3,500 troops had so far been dispatched as part of what has been termed Operation Faithful Patriot, and that more were due to be deployed. He said of that number, 1,100 had been sent to California, 170 to Arizona and 2,250 to Texas.
He said not all the troops were taking up positions directly on the border, but were mustering in military bases.
Asked how long the troops would be there, he said: “We are supporting this operation with United States Border Patrol and responding to their request. It is up to them when they decide we’re done.”
Those associated with the migrants, which is currently in three sections, said the troops’ deployment to the border was nothing more than politics.
Speaking from Mexico, Irineo Mujica, president of the group Pueblos Sin Fronteras, which has organised previous marches for migrants but has said it is not behind the current ones, told The Independent “it’s definitely a political stunt”.
“It’s for political reasons. He is doing this to get votes,” said Mr Mujica, who lives in San Diego. “He knows that if he wants to solve the problem of migration, he needs to make sure people have no need to migrate.”
The decision to send troops to the border has triggered debate, not just among politicians but within the ranks of the military. CNN said that when the Pentagon first received a request from the Department of Homeland Security to provide a reserve force that could provide “crowd and traffic control” and protect border officials, it was turned down.
The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 prevents the military carrying out law and order duties unless there is no other alternative. Defence secretary James Mattis did, however, agree to the request to send troops to support the work of border agents.
Even so, some former military have voiced doubts and concerns about the deployment. “The military has all of a sudden been placed in a highly politicised environment regarding immigration,” former lieutenant general David Barno, who commanded US forces in Afghanistan, told The Washington Post.
Former general Colin Powell, who served as both secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said: “I see no threat requiring this kind of deployment.” Martin Dempsey, another former general and one-time JSC chairman, said on Twitter, the border operation was a “wasteful deployment of over-stretched soldiers and marines”.