WASHINGTON — The probability that U.S. border guards will face violence at the southwestern border is “minimal,” an internal Homeland Security Department document has concluded, undercutting a Trump administration proposal to protect the security officials from migrant attacks by pairing them with military troops.
The border intelligence analysis contrasts with statements by the department and the White House citing concerns about migrants overrunning official ports of entry and attacking border guards to enter the United States.
Dated Nov. 17, it was obtained by The New York Times as the Trump administration is considering teaming up military troops with customs officials and Border Patrol agents as they confront migrants.
“C.B.P. assesses the likelihood of violence directed against C.B.P. personnel along the border is minimal,” stated the document, which was produced by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, an arm of the Department of Homeland Security.
Officials said the Trump administration has not decided whether to shift the mission of the 5,900 active-duty troops who were deployed to the border ahead of an approaching migrant caravan from Central America. Talks are ongoing, said one Defense Department official who was not authorized to speak about the deliberations.
Military documents have predicted that only a small percentage of the migrants will make it to the border. Col. Rob Manning, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement Tuesday that the cost of deploying the military troops was expected to reach $72 million so far.
Currently, the troops are authorized to use military force only for self-defense. The White House is pushing to give the soldiers and Marines explicit authority, in writing, to accompany and defend agents who might come under attack, administration officials said.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is expected to accede to the White House wishes, according to the officials, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the internal talks.
More than 3,200 migrants from the caravan have reached the border city of Tijuana, Mexico, where they may have to wait for months if they decide to seek legal entry. Officials estimate that the number could reach more than 10,000. An additional 3,000 migrants are in the border city of Mexicali, about 100 miles east of Tijuana, according to reports from Customs and Border Protection.
Homeland Security officials said migrants have attempted to run through the ports of entry; another internal Customs and Border Protection document reported that Mexican police monitored about 30 migrants lingering around the border crossing on Monday in San Ysidro, California. Three were detained after Mexican officials let them pass, according to the document.
On Tuesday, Pentagon officials questioned the point of providing military protection to border guards, given that the troops in Arizona, Texas and California are scheduled to leave by Dec. 15 — three weeks away.
Two Defense Department officials said Mattis was still trying to limit the role of U.S. troops at the border to providing support and logistics to the Homeland Security agents. An Army statement on Tuesday said the military might “shift some forces to other areas of the border to engineering support missions in California and other areas.”
President Donald Trump, during an exchange with reporters on the South Lawn, played down concerns about the troops spending Thanksgiving away from home.
“Don’t worry about Thanksgiving,” Trump said. “These are tough people. They know what they’re doing and they’re great. You’re so worried about the Thanksgiving holiday for them. They are so proud to be representing our country on the border.”
The proposed military protection for customs officers and Border Patrol agents was first reported by CNN. The troops were deployed to the border this month at the request of Trump, who described the caravan as a national security threat and claimed, without proof, that “unknown Middle Easterners” were among the migrants, most of whom are fleeing crime and violence in Honduras.
The 5,900 troops have spent the past three weeks stringing concertina wire and living in forward operating bases near the border with Mexico.
They are under orders not to interact with incoming migrants and are, for the most part, unarmed. Military police carry 9 mm pistols, but are restricted to base security and watching over the detachments of troops fortifying border fences.
Interactions between the troops and Border Patrol agents have mostly been transactional. The agents ensure troops have access to parts of the border as needed but are rarely seen on the military’s small outposts.
Under military guidelines, U.S. troops operating within the United States may use deadly force only in cases of self-defense, and are prohibited from law enforcement activity. If the White House directs the military to protect Border Patrol or other law enforcement agents, officials said it would apply only to the ongoing mission.
Though minor, the shift could put military personnel closer to border control points — and, potentially, closer to interaction with approaching migrants, something Mattis has resisted.
It remains unclear if the move would apply to thousands of National Guard troops who have provided support along the southwestern border for months. A senior military officer said that protecting Department of Homeland Security personnel was not a mission that state governors had accepted when they allowed their forces to join the border duty.
Homeland Security officials said on Monday that they had restricted vehicle traffic at the San Ysidro port of entry in San Diego, the nation’s busiest, after receiving intelligence reports that migrants in neighboring Tijuana might try to overrun the border crossing. Customs and Border Protection closed the San Ysidro crossing for several hours to install concrete barriers and razor wire.
In a conference call with reporters on Monday, Homeland Security officials said they had identified 500 criminals traveling within the caravan, highlighting the need for military protection in case border agents were attacked.
“As Secretary Nielsen has said, we will not allow our front-line personnel to be in harm’s way,” said Katie Waldman, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, referring to the department’s leader, Kirstjen Nielsen. “We will do everything we can to protect those who defend our nation’s sovereignty and secure our border. We appreciate the Department of Defense stepping in to assist the Department of Homeland Security as needed.”
The New York Times
Ron Nixon, Helene Cooper and Thomas Gibbons-Neff © 2018 The New York Times