McALLEN, Texas -- Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan visited a border city in Texas on Saturday and said he intends to accelerate planning to secure the border and bolster the ability of President Donald Trump's administration to accomplish that without the Pentagon's continuous help.
He also offered assurances to perhaps two dozen Border Patrol agents and other officials at the McAllen Border Patrol Station that the Pentagon would not withdraw its military support prematurely.
"We're not going to leave until the border is secure," he said, adding, "This isn't about identifying a problem. It's about fixing a problem more quickly."
Shanahan told Congress last week that there are 4,364 troops on the border, including active-duty and National Guard. They are erecting barriers, providing logistics and transportation services and other activities in support of the Customs and Border Protection agency. The troops are prohibited from performing law enforcement duties. Troops have been deployed on the border since October and are committed to being there through September this year.
While flying to Texas, Shanahan dismissed any suggestion that active-duty forces will extend their mission for the long haul. "It will not be indefinite," he told reporters traveling with him.
Shanahan also said he has instructed a two-star Army general, Ricky Waddell, to develop a plan soon that will answer this question: "How do we get more badges back to the border?" -- a reference to ensuring the Homeland Security Department is fully capable of securing the border, its core mission.
Shortfalls in personnel and other resources have prompted the Department of Homeland Security to periodically ask for the military's help on the border, without a plan for fixing underlying resource problems.
"What we want is for [the Homeland Security Department] to be effective and stand alone," Shanahan said, with the Pentagon always available to help in an emergency, as it has in the past.
The department on Friday submitted another request for Pentagon assistance, defense officials said Saturday. That request, which has not previously been disclosed, is for shelter for detained migrants, and would include tents to be set up but not secured by an undetermined number of military troops, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal planning.
Shanahan announced Friday that he was transferring $1.5 billion from numerous defense projects, including $604 million originally intended for use in support of Afghan security forces, to a Pentagon counterdrug fund that will help finance construction of barriers on the U.S.-Mexico border. That is in addition to $1 billion the Pentagon transferred for wall construction in March.
Shanahan has supported the use of active-duty troops, in addition to the National Guard, to bolster efforts by the border agency to handle surging numbers of Central American migrants seeking to cross. But recently he has hinted at impatience with the lack of a long-term strategy for ensuring border security.
In congressional testimony May 1, Shanahan said he and Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have been considering the question of how long the military will be needed at the border and how best it can support that need.
On May 3, Shanahan told reporters that the border crisis had developed more quickly than anyone had anticipated, putting extra pressure on the Department of Homeland Security.
"I don't think anybody thought it would be this bad, the situation would deteriorate like it has, and that distress would be as high on those front-line [Homeland Security] employees," he said.
Many Democrats have questioned the use of active-duty troops on the border.
"The longer the Southwest border mission continues, the line of demarcation starts to blur in terms of where we're drawing a line saying this is not a military responsibility, this is law enforcement, immigration, internal security responsibility," Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said at a recent hearing.
More than 80 Democratic members of Congress have asked the Government Accountability Office to conduct an investigation into the "record-breaking" backlog of immigration cases currently pending under the Trump administration.
"Processing delays for applications and immigration benefits have reached crisis levels and these delays are hurting families and businesses that depend on timely adjudications," Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, and 81 other lawmakers wrote in a letter, submitted Friday to Comptroller General Gene Dodaro. The Washington Post obtained a copy of the letter Friday.
The lawmakers specifically criticized U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, saying they are "alarmed" that the agency "is adjudicating cases at an increasingly slow pace compared to previous years."
The Trump administration, which last month detained 109,144 migrants along the southern border with Mexico, has spent the past 2½ years struggling to win congressional approval for legislation that would expand a wall on the southern border and dramatically alter the system through which foreigners are admitted to the United States.
Trump and his advisers have called for a "merit-based" immigration system that would make paths to U.S. residency and citizenship contingent on specific skill sets.
Immigration attorneys, advocates and Democratic lawmakers say the administration has intentionally slowed the process through which it grants citizenship and other immigration benefits, creating a backlog.
"The wait times for citizenship have become outrageous," Castro said Friday, noting that his concern is that the White House is taking steps to "stop certain people from becoming citizens and staying in this country."
The Customs and Immigration Services agency's net backlog -- which includes all immigration applications, ranging from pending green cards to immigrant work visas -- exceeded 2.3 million cases by last fall, a recent analysis by the American Immigration Lawyers Association found.
"We haven't seen a satisfactory explanation for why processing times would spike so high in such a short amount of time," Castro said.
Overcrowding at Border Patrol stations in south Texas has become so acute in recent days that U.S. authorities are using aircraft to move migrants to other areas of the border simply to begin processing them, according to three Homeland Security officials.
The first flight left McAllen on Friday, transferring detainees to Border Patrol facilities in Del Rio, Texas. There are daily flights scheduled for the next several days, with two planned for Tuesday, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the operations.
The flights are conducted by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, but the detainees remain in the custody of the Border Patrol, officials said. Though the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency routinely uses aircraft to move detainees among its detention facilities, it is very unusual for the Border Patrol to fly recent arrivals from one part of the border to another to perform routine booking procedures.
Homeland Security officials requested the aircraft because the Border Patrol urgently needs to move single adults out of the lower Rio Grande Valley of south Texas. The agency is scrambling to make room for families and children who have crossed the border in higher numbers in the past several days, officials said.
One official said the U.S. government has resorted to using aircraft because all available buses were already in use.
The number of people taken into custody along the Mexico border has exceeded 5,500 each day for several days in a row, and the Border Patrol currently has more than 17,500 people in holding cells and tent sites set up in parking lots outside stations, officials said. That is a 30% increase from late March, when authorities said border agents and infrastructure had hit the "breaking point."
Tents have been set up in the parking lots outside Border Patrol stations in the lower Rio Grande Valley cities of McAllen, Brownsville and Rio Grande City to ease overcrowding. Emergency tents for families also have been erected in El Paso and at Camp Donna, a military site in the Rio Grande Valley.
Information for this article was contributed by Robert Burns of The Associated Press and by Abigail Hauslohner and Nick Miroff of The Washington Post.
A Section on 05/12/2019
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