Pentagon to keep 5,500 troops at Mexico border

The Pentagon said it had approved a request from the Department of Homeland Security to keep thousands of troops deployed at the border with Mexico (soldiers pictured November 2018) to help fight illegal immigration (AFP Photo/Thomas WATKINS)

Washington (AFP) - The US Defense Department said Tuesday that it would keep up to 5,500 troops deployed at the Mexican border for the coming year to help combat illegal immigration.

A week after announcing it would divert $3.6 billion in funds for the construction of an anti-migrant wall on the frontier, the Pentagon said it had also approved a request from the Department of Homeland Security to maintain a troop presence as well.

The Defense Department "will provide up to 5,500 personnel to provide infrastructure support; operational support; detection and monitoring support; and air support," said Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Chris Mitchell.

The increased military presence on the US side of the border mirrors a significantly expanded deployment by Mexican troops, following pressure from President Donald Trump, including threat of trade sanctions.

Vice President Mike Pence met Tuesday with Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard in Washington and "acknowledged the government of Mexico's meaningful and unprecedented steps to help curb the flow of illegal immigration," the White House said.

However, the statement also echoed repeated demands from US officials this week for Mexico to do still more in the cross-border crackdown.

Ebrard told reporters that the meeting had been "friendly" and while there were still disagreements on how to handle asylum seekers, the crisis situation between the two huge neighbors and trading partners appeared to have been defused.

"The risk of confrontation between Mexico and the United States is getting more and more distant," he said.

Trump's administration argues that the border is inadequately protected against out-of-control illegal migration, while opponents accuse Trump of demonizing immigrants for political gain.

- 'Manageable impacts to readiness' -

The US deployment, which began nearly a year ago, was approved by Defense Secretary Mark Esper for the coming fiscal year beginning October 1.

Currently around 2,900 soldiers and 2,000 reservists are operating at the border.

Mitchell said using military personnel to bolster a civilian operation to detain tens of thousands of people attempting to enter the country illegally each month had no significant impact on the US military's combat readiness.

"These missions can be supported with manageable impacts to readiness, and are contingent on the availability of funds and the continued statutory authority to provide such support," he said.

Trump has made halting undocumented immigration a key thrust of his administration.

The diversion of billions of dollars of Pentagon funds -- already allocated for some 127 projects -- to border wall construction was justified under a controversial emergency declaration by Trump.

The Trump administration declared a national emergency in February of this year after Congress repeatedly denied the president funding for the construction of a border wall that he promised Mexico would pay for.

On Tuesday, senior Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer announced that the party would soon introduce a resolution to terminate the emergency declaration, which would block the use of the funds on border wall projects.

"The president's national emergency declaration was, and is, an outrageous power grab by a president who refuses to respect the constitutional separation of powers," Schumer said.