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Immigration & The Border

Trump advisers discussed whether military could build and run migrant detention camps

Top Trump advisers met at the White House Tuesday to talk about increasing military involvement at the border, including building tent cities for migrants.
U.S. Army soldiers from Ft. Riley, Kansas string razor wire near the port of entry at the U.S.-Mexico border in Donna, Texas
Soldiers from Fort Riley, Kansas, string razor wire near the port of entry at the U.S.-Mexico border on Nov. 4, 2018, in Donna, Texas.John Moore / Getty Images

WASHINGTON — When some of President Donald Trump's top national security advisers gathered at the White House Tuesday night to talk about the surge of immigrants across the southern border, they discussed increasing the U.S. military's involvement in the border mission, including whether the military could be used to build tent city detention camps for migrants, according to three U.S. officials familiar with the conversations.

During the meeting, the officials also discussed whether the U.S. military could legally run the camps once the migrants are housed there, a move the three officials said was very unlikely since U.S. law prohibits the military from directly interacting with migrants. The law has been a major limitation for Trump, who wants to engage troops in his mission to get tougher on immigration.

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan was at the White House meeting Tuesday night and was open to sending more U.S. troops to support the border mission, so long as their assigned mission is within the law, according to the three U.S. officials.

Thousands of troops are currently deployed along the southern border, and are mainly used for reinforcing existing fencing with barbed wire.

Potential new projects for the troops that were mentioned Tuesday, according to the three officials — two from the Pentagon and one from Homeland Security — also included conducting assessments of the land before the construction of new tent cities in El Paso and Donna, Texas. They would also be used in assessments before construction of a new central processing center for migrants in El Paso, said the DHS official.

The creation of the processing center was announced last month. It is being designed to temporarily detain arriving immigrants, many of whom are being released in El Paso due to the lack of detention space.

The processing center will be similar to one currently used in McAllen, Texas, where children were kept in chain-link areas, which some called "cages," while the Trump administration's family separation policy was in effect last summer, according to two Customs and Border Protection officials.

The tent cities would hold immigrants while Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities continue to be at capacity. The Obama administration also used tents to hold immigrants in Donna, Texas, in 2016.

The idea has trickled down into planning meetings held this week at DHS, one of the officials said.

Discussions this week, at the White House meeting and afterward, have included the suggestion that troops may be needed to run the tent city detention camps once immigrants are being housed there, according to the U.S. officials familiar with the conversations.

The Posse Comitatus Act prohibits the use of federal troops for domestic law enforcement inside the U.S. This prevents them from direct interaction with immigrants crossing into the country. One U.S. official said recent meetings have included discussions about whether using active duty troops to run a detention camp would be a violation of Posse Comitatus.

While there has been discussion of an increase in troops, no specific numbers have been mentioned, and officials do not expect a large number of additional troops to be needed for any new mission.

A U.S. border patrol official speaking on the condition of anonymity said the military allows for faster construction than private contractors, who can protest decisions and slow down the process.

“The importance of DOD is that they are able to mobilize quickly because we face an immediate crisis now,” said the border patrol official.

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As an example of the crisis, the border patrol official said on Tuesday, 253 Central Americans, mainly families were stopped in Santa Teresa, New Mexico. Large groups present a challenge for border agents who must process, shelter and often find medical care for immigrants.

The border patrol official said he is not aware of plans to use troops to run detention facilities for migrants and noted it would be in violation of U.S. law.

The White House meeting came just two days after Trump tweeted that his secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, was leaving and that Kevin McAleenan, the CBP commissioner, would replace her as acting secretary. DHS Acting Deputy Secretary Claire Grady has also resigned.

On Wednesday, during a visit to Texas, Trump spoke about increasing the number of U.S. troops assigned to the border mission and alluded to the limitations to using active duty troops there.

"I'm going to have to call up more military. Our military, don't forget, can't act like a military would act. Because if they got a little rough, everybody would go crazy. ... Our military can't act like they would normally act. ... They have all these horrible laws that the Democrats won't change. They will not change them."

DHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In a statement, Defense Department spokesperson Lt. Col. Jamie Davis, said: "As we said last year when we were looking at possible facilities at Fort Bliss and Goodfellow Air Force Base, DOD could be involved in the possible construction of facilities to house immigrants. There are currently no new requests for assistance."