By ROBERT BURNS and JILL COLVIN
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration is planning to dispatch 800 more troops to the border at the direction of a president who has declared illegal immigration a “national emergency” and has been stoking fears about it ahead of the fast-approaching midterms just as he did before his own election.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is expected to sign an order as early as Thursday sending 800 or more troops to the southern border to support the Border Patrol, according to a U.S. official. The official was not authorized to speak publicly because the details had not yet been finalized and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The order comes as thousands of Central American migrants continue their caravan trek through Mexico toward the hoped-for, but still far-distant U.S. border. Trump earlier Thursday tweeted that he was “bringing out the military” to stop those trying to enter the country and blamed Democrats for existing laws.
The additional troops are to provide what one official described as logistical support to the Border Patrol, including a variety of things such as vehicles, tents and equipment. There already are about 2,000 National Guard troops assisting at the border under a previous Pentagon arrangement. But the new troops would be active duty troops, not National Guard, the U.S. official said.
Trump, who was elected by stoking fears about immigrants, has been eager to make immigration a top issue heading into the midterm elections next month, which will determine which party controls Congress. Trump and senior White House officials have long believed the issue is key to turning out Trump’s ardent base of supporters. And Trump, at rallies and on Twitter, has tried to paint the Democrats as pro-illegal immigration, even claiming, with no evidence, that Democrats had organized and paid for the caravan, which remains more than 1,000 miles from the U.S. border.
The sprawling caravan of migrants —once estimated by the United Nations to be more than 7,000 strong — is hoping to make it to the United State. Most are Hondurans, seeking to escape the poverty and violence that plagues the region.
The caravan swelled dramatically soon after crossing the Mexican border on Oct. 19, but sickness, fear and police harassment have whittled down its numbers. Since entering Mexico at its southernmost tip, the group has advanced roughly 95 miles.
Trump earlier this year ordered the deployment of National Guard members to the U.S.-Mexico border to respond to a spike in illegal border crossing. But those members remain under the control of the governors of the states where they’re positioned, and their activities are limited to supportive roles, such as providing surveillance.
Federal law prohibits the use of active-duty service members for law enforcement inside the U.S. unless specifically authorized by Congress.
Trump had tweeted Monday that he’d alerted Border Patrol and the military that the caravan was “a National Emergy,” but the Pentagon said then that they’d received no new orders to provide troops for border security.
But Trump told a rally crowd in Wisconsin on Wednesday that moves were under way.
“Wait’ll you see what happens over the next couple of weeks. You’re going to see a very secure border. You just watch,” he told the crowd. “And the military is ready. They’re all set.”