The White House has authorised military troops along the nation’s southern border to use “lethal force” if it becomes necessary while assisting Border Patrol and US Customs and Border Protection officers, it has been reported.
The move comes after Donald Trump urged the military to send thousands of troops to the US-Mexico border ahead of the arrival of a caravan of refugees and migrants travelling from Central America. The president has claimed – without evidence – that among the caravan are criminals and Islamists.
White House chief of staff John Kelly is said to have signed the cabinet order on Tuesday night, over the threat of possible incidents of violence on the border. It gives permission for military personnel to “perform those military protective activities that the secretary of defence determines are reasonably necessary,” including “a show or use of force (including lethal force, where necessary), crowd control, temporary detention, and cursory search”.
The order – first reported by the Military Times – applies to 5,900 active-duty service members currently deployed to the region, as well as 2,100 National Guard troops.
On Wednesday, US defence secretary James Mattis said he has now been equipped by the White House with the “authority to do more” with the troops, while noting the military does not have arrest authority and will “not be doing law enforcement”.
He said that he was waiting for a request from the department of Homeland Security before deciding how to use that new authority. He said troops could help protect the border agents with shields and batons, but would be unarmed.
“We could stop [migrants] from beating on [Border Patrol agents],” Mr Mattis said.
However, the move may be challenged, as the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act bars the military from engaging in domestic law enforcement practices.
In a report, the Congressional Research Service said active military troops may only be used domestically to “suppress insurrection or to enforce federal authority”, while maintaining the right to self-defence.
But the latest order appeared to speak specifically to protecting Border Patrol agents and US Customs officers, with Mr Kelly saying he was aware of intelligence which indicates migrants “may prompt incidents of violence and disorder” while reaching the border.
The order is just one of several new controversial approaches the Trump administration has taken to resolving issues along the border.
Officials told Reuters on Tuesday the White House was also considering giving US troops permission to medically screen all arriving migrants, despite the Pentagon previously saying it did not expect military forces to interact directly with migrants.
But the military has resisted several of the administration’s requests throughout the region, with a lieutenant general overseeing the deployment of military troops to the border telling Politico this week the Department of Homeland Security denied requests to use “armed force” in assisting US Border Patrol agents.
Mr Trump has also recently threatened to target the amendment-protected practice of birthright citizenship, a move that would almost certainly end up in lengthy court battles. The president also encouraged military troops to treat rocks thrown at them by migrants as “firearms” during a televised statement.
While there are no readily available statistics on violent confrontations along the US-Mexico border, field offices throughout the region have previously told The Independent most interactions with immigrants are peaceful and non-confrontational.
Migrants lacking documentation are often detained either at or between ports of entry, before going through processing and typically applying for asylum. Data shows the majority of undocumented immigrants show up for court proceedings during the asylum process.
The White House and US Customs and Border Protection did not respond to enquiries.
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