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Trump Sending Congress Border Legislation, Wants Guard on Hand

Hispanic Caucus questions due process, motivation

A Border Patrol Agent who declined to give their name zip ties suspected illegal immigrants together. This was the agents first, but not last apprehension of the night. (CQ Roll Call file photo)
A Border Patrol Agent who declined to give their name zip ties suspected illegal immigrants together. This was the agents first, but not last apprehension of the night. (CQ Roll Call file photo)

The White House has crafted border security legislation it wants Congress to quickly take up, even as President Donald Trump wants National Guardsmen deployed to help block immigrants from entering the United States via the Southern border.

A senior administration official later said the White House is planning a “very vigorous” legislative push on the issue.

Mobilizing National Guard troops will be an “important part” of the  administration’s enhanced border security strategy, said press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. But she and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen made clear on Wednesday that a “frustrated” Trump will be unable to achieve all his border security whims without help from lawmakers.

“The administration has asked Congress for help. Congress makes immigration law,” Nielsen said at Wednesday’s White House press briefing. “We have asked for changes to existing law to close loopholes that feed this problem,” she said, then alluding to Congress’ inability to pass major immigration legislation under Trump or his last few predecessors. “Unfortunately — time and again — Congress has failed to act.”

Nielsen said she has talked to congressional leaders about passing a border security bill, describing her outlook that lawmakers will send Trump a bill as “optimistic.” (Election-year politics will complicate that rosy outlook, however.)

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Specifically, the administration wants lawmakers to overhaul so-called “catch-and-release” policies “completely,” the DHS chief said.

Work on the administration’s overall border security enhancement plan is only getting under way “at the president’s direction,” she said.

On a separate call with the press, the senior administration official talked timing. “I would expect that in the spring-summer the issue of border security is probably going to be one of the biggest issues on Congress’s plate,” the official said, adding it should be “easy” to pass a border bill.

One reason: The White House has learned over its first 15 months that it is easier to “marshal support in today’s divided and fractured Congress” when lawmakers are asked to focus on “a single issue,” the senior official said.

Meanwhile, the president will be signing a proclamation Wednesday requesting border-state governors mobilize Guard units.

National Guard units will complement federal law enforcement on border security operations, Nielsen said. 

Nielsen said the Trump administration wants National Guard troops to begin deploying to the southern border “as soon as possible.” Sending those troops is an easier legal task because of restrictions on what active-duty military troopers can do on U.S. soil; the military, including the National Guard, is prohibited from domestic law enforcement and cannot make arrests or use force.

But before the deployments can take place, memorandums of understanding with each state government are required. Talks about the specifics of those are already under way, Nielsen said, adding Guard troops will conduct missions like aerial surveillance and “support functions” for law enforcement.

Democratic lawmakers and pro-immigrant groups were quick to respond.

“Loopholes aka due process? civil liberties?” the Congressional Hispanic Caucus tweeted as Sanders and Nielsen briefed reporters.

Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., the House Homeland Security Committee’s ranking member, said sending Guard troops to the border does “little more than stoke anti-immigrant hate.”

“Those who seek asylum in the United States are not enemy combatants and Mexico is not an enemy to guard against,” he said in a statement. “The president’s repeated inaccuracies and blatant lies about the southern border, our border security laws, and those seeking humanitarian assistance are deeply damaging and promote even more hateful rhetoric. It’s time for the president to stop.”

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Other critics questioned if the price tag of deploying military troops and their operations is a cost-effective way to address border matters.

“I don’t think you can put a cost on security,” Sanders said.

Thompson said he “strongly” questions whether Trump first discussed the idea with DHS and Pentagon officials or if they “were caught completely off guard.” Sanders denied the sudden move to send Guard troops to the border was spawned by a report the president might have seen over the weekend on Fox News.