Washington — The Trump administration is dispatching military personnel to the U.S.-Mexico border to help officials there respond to large groups of migrants it believes may form if courts block one of its main policies to restrict asylum, senior immigration officials said Friday.
A "crisis response force" of 160 military police, aviators and engineers will be deployed over the weekend to ports of entry in El Paso and San Diego, two of the most highly transited crossings along the U.S. southern border.
Senior officials with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said the agency asked the Pentagon for assistance in response to a court order last week that, which requires asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico for their chance to appear before a U.S. immigration judge.
Though officials said the military units will help ensure ports of entry operations are not disrupted by large groups of migrants, it is unclear what their specific functions will be. The senior CBP officials confirmed the Pentagon personnel will not engage in immigration enforcement, but would not say if it would help in the forcible removal of migrants who show up at ports of entry.
CBP temporarily closed some ports of entry last Friday when groups of migrants congregated near them to see if they could get some relief through the initial order by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which said the asylum policy, known officially as the Migrant Protection Protocols, was likely illegal.
"CBP ports of entry are not designed or equipped to handle extremely large groups of travelers arriving at the same time, and temporary closure of a POE is contemplated as an extreme option as necessary for public safety and border security," one senior CBP official said on a call with reporters Friday.
The deployment, which is slated to last two weeks but could be extended, comes days before the administration will be required to stop implementing the "Remain in Mexico" policy in California and Arizona. Under the program, U.S. officials have returned more than 60,000 Latin American asylum-seekers to northern Mexico, including areas plagued by rampant crime and violence.
The controversial program was briefly halted last week after the 9th Circuit issued an order upholding a ruling by a federal judge against the policy. But the court agreed to pause its own order hours later after administration lawyers rushed to defend the policy, arguing that a surge at the border could occur if it remained halted.
On Wednesday, the 9th Circuit said it would continue to pause the order until March 11. But the court reaffirmed its holding that the policy is illegal, and said it would only agree to stay the injunction by a federal judge against the program outside of its jurisdiction.
The administration responded on Friday by asking the Supreme Court to intervene and to set aside the lower court injunction against the policy. Justice Department lawyers again warned of a "rush on the border" if the program was again blocked, even if only partially.
Unless the Supreme Court issues an order, the injunction against the policy will be reinstated on March 12 in states covered by the 9th Circuit, which includes California and Arizona.