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By Sylvia Longmire
Columnist, In Homeland Security
On President Donald Trump’s orders, the Pentagon is sending both National Guard and active duty troops to the U.S.-Mexico border to protect it from what Trump has labeled an “invasion” by a caravan of Central American migrants. The deployment order initially started with 800 troops, then quickly rose to 5,200. Trump’s latest statements indicate he may send as many as 15,000 solders to the border. However, a recent threat assessment published by the U.S. Army indicates the threat posed by the caravan is nowhere near the level that Trump is claiming.
Migrant Caravan Crowd Dwindling
The caravan started in mid-October 2018 in San Pedro Sula, Honduras with a local group of roughly 160 people. When it had traveled about 75 miles, word got out through social media and word-of-mouth and people started joining in along the way. By the time the caravan reached the Mexican border, its numbers had surged to 7,000 members. However, as the caravan enters its fourth week, its size has dwindled to about 3,500 people, partly due to former members who chose to request asylum in Mexico or return home. The size is likely to dwindle even further as the arduous journey through Mexico continues.
Army Report Contrasts President’s Prediction
This isn’t the first migrant caravan to make its way north to the U.S.-Mexico border, and each time the group that arrives is only a fraction of the size of the group at its peak. The U.S. Army is likely basing its threat assessment on historical data and intelligence collected on the ground through personal interviews with migrants in the caravan, media reports, and Mexican government reports. The Army’s conclusions are in stark contrast to President Trump’s claims that the caravan is filled with people to pose a major national security threat to the U.S.
According to military planning documents obtained and released by Newsweek, about 20 percent of the roughly 7,000 migrants traveling through Mexico are likely to complete the journey. Per The Washington Post, the report was prepared by U.S. Army North, a component of U.S. Northern Command, which oversees the mission dubbed Operation Faithful Patriot. The Post stated, “If the military’s assessment is accurate, it would mean the United States is positioning five soldiers on the border for every one caravan member expected to arrive there.”
‘Unknown Middle Easterners’
President Trump has depicted the caravans — at least four have formed, though they remain hundreds of miles away — as a grave danger to U.S. national security, claiming they are composed of “unknown Middle Easterners,” hardened criminals, and “very tough fighters.” However, the report states that among those traveling are “limited #s of Bangladeshi, Haitian and African individuals.” It makes no mention of Middle Eastern countries. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials say they have identified 270 individuals in the caravan with “criminal histories, including known gang membership.” In a statement, DHS also said foreign nationals from 20 countries are among the groups, though none of the nations it listed are in the Middle East. Military planners do not anticipate terrorist infiltration as the caravan moves north.
Armed Militia Concerns
The assessment also indicates military planners are concerned about the presence of “unregulated armed militia” groups showing up at the border in areas where U.S. troops will operate. This concern is supported by a report in the Albuquerque Journal, that said two men with a self-described militia showed up in late October offering Columbus, New Mexico Mayor Ezequiel Salas help protecting the border. According to the Journal, the men said they were in the small border town scouting locations to prepare for the migrant caravan from Central America slowly making its way through Mexico toward the southwest border. At a Columbus hotel on October 31, a few members of the militia rested and waited for nightfall to patrol the border. One of their trucks in the parking lot had an “ISIS hunting” decal on the bottom of the windshield.
One of the militia members claimed he had checked in with Customs and Border Protection, and said Border Patrol asked that the group stay north of Highway 9 to avoid confusion when agents are tracking footprints and other traffic from illegal border crossers. “We are aware a group of people have arrived in New Mexico with the goal of ‘patrolling’ the border but they are not working in conjunction with the Border Patrol,” according to a statement from the El Paso Border Patrol sector, which includes all of New Mexico. However, a militia group called Patriots of the Constitution put out a call via social media on October 23 for “A FULL DEPLOYMENT OF EVERY ABLE BODY U.S. CITIZEN to Head to the U.S. Southern Border and Link up with other U.S. Citizen Groups whom are making a Stand to Secure our Border from a Mob of Migrating Immigrants.”
The bulk of the caravan is not expected to cross the border anywhere near New Mexico, as the shortest route from southern Mexico to the U.S. border leads to the Texas Rio Grande Valley. Even if parts of the caravan break away, the most commonly used human smuggling routes lead to Arizona, Texas, and California.