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Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has requested the assistance of over 1,500 US military personnel for border enforcement, citing immigrants’ “potential to spread infectious disease,” according to an internal Department of Homeland Security memo obtained exclusively by The Nation.
The memo requests 1,000 military personnel to support CBP operations at the northern border and an additional 540 for the southwest border, an operation it anticipates will last through September 30. The troops stationed there would “increase CBP’s capacity to protect public health and prevent the spread of COVID-19,” granting Border Patrol the ability to coordinate operational use of military assets and resources.
This would represent an increase to the 5,200 troops already at the border because of President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency over undocumented immigration in February, 2019.
“Any unknown or unresolved illegal entries into the United States in between Ports of Entry (POE), have the potential to spread infectious disease,” the memo states, echoing Trump’s past rhetoric equating migrants with disease.
Trump has accused Mexican migrants of bringing “tremendous infectious disease…pouring across the border.” He has also said that “open borders…brings large scale crime and disease” and insists on calling COVID-19 a “Chinese” virus.
Last week, the Trump administration said it would block almost all border traffic from entering the United States—including asylum seekers attempting to enter lawfully through ports of entry. Earlier this week, The Nation published a leaked Department of Homeland Security (DHS) document about COVID-19 showing that ICE detainees were being monitored and quarantined across 10 different facilities, as well as that 1,444 DHS employees were in precautionary self-quarantine—with its ICE and CBP employees among the most affected. (The DHS is ICE and CBP’s parent agency.)
In July, the DHS Inspector General issued a report that found “dangerous overcrowding” and squalid conditions in its migrant detention facilities—conditions that could propagate illnesses like the coronavirus. And earlier this week, ICE detainees reportedly went on a hunger strike for soap.
James Hodge, director at the Center for Public Health Law and Policy at Arizona State University, told The Nation that travel restrictions can have unintended consequences.
“[It] is not something that CDC favors…it can be problematic” Hodge said, explaining that it can lead to other countries retaliating with their own travel restrictions. This could leave many potentially healthy individuals trapped overseas.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has also opposed travel restrictions specifically in relation to coronavirus on grounds that it can harm economies and encourage travelers to lie about their symptoms. In February, its director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said, “The WHO doesn’t recommend and actually opposes any restrictions for travel and trade or other measures against China.”
The memo is titled, “Request for Department of Defense (DoD) Assistance in Support of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) on the Northern and Southwest Borders to Prevent the Spread of the Novel Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) and Maintain Public Health.” Marked “For Official Use Only // Law Enforcement Sensitive,” the memo was provided by a Pentagon official who requested anonymity to avoid professional reprisal. The memo was sent from DHS’ Acting Executive Secretary, Julianna Blackwell, to the Defense Department’s Executive Secretary, Capt. Oliver Lewis, and is dated March 19.
While the memo notes that CBP already enjoys enhanced enforcement measures, it says they are still not adequate to maintain public health in the face of coronavirus. “CBP is undertaking enhanced enforcement and is collaborating with external partners to address cross border safety and security challenges. CBP cannot, however, effectively maintain public health measures and national security requirements without additional support.”
The memo cites business performance and public confidence in the government as reasons for the deployment.
“DHS’ overarching goal is to secure and manage the Nation’s borders while minimizing threats to public health, thereby ensuring the safety of the DHS workforce and the environment where communities and businesses can thrive and people feel confident that the U.S. Government will respond to emergent public health threats in a reliable and sustainable manner to maintain national security.”
As with previous border deployments, the memo stresses that the military will be operating in a support capacity, and will not conduct civilian law enforcement activities—for example, arresting undocumented migrants—while remaining under the military chain of command.
The memo appears vague on use of force guidelines, stating that “use of force will be informed by the circumstances of their missions and made by DoD as appropriate, in consultation with CBP.”