The Trump administration provided a rough outline of a plan to deploy National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border to help border agents confront a rise in illegal immigrant crossings from Central America until Congress takes steps to curb them.
National Guard troops will operate in supportive roles focused on surveillance, vehicle maintenance, border wall repair, and a number of other duties to allow for more border agents to work on "frontline apprehension roles," an administration official told reporters on a Wednesday conference call.
"Border security is homeland security, which is national security," Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told reporters Wednesday. "It's not a partisan issue, it's not something we can separate out. It's core to being a sovereign nation."
"It's time to act" because "the threat is real," Nielsen said.
"Despite a number of steps this administration has taken, we continue to see unacceptable levels of illegal drugs, dangerous gang activity and transnational criminal activity and illegal immigration flow across our border," she said. "This threatens not only the safety of our communities and children, but our nation's rule of law."
The move follows President Trump's Tuesday announcement that he planned to send the military to the border "until we can have a wall and proper security."
The officials declined to say exactly how many troops will be deployed to the border and how long they will remain there.
The timing of the announcement reflects Trump's growing frustration with Congress's inaction on bolstering border security and closing a number of immigration "loopholes," an administration official told reporters on a conference call.
One "loophole" Trump officials have mentioned repeatedly in recent days prevents federal authorities from quickly deporting illegal immigrants from non-contiguous countries such as El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala who make it across the border.
Trump and other administration officials have said that illegal immigrants from those countries end up disappearing into the United States and never appear for their designated court dates for consideration of their cases.
While the numbers of illegal immigrants entering the United States has declined during the Trump administration, Department of Homeland Security officials say the numbers are rising to "Obama-era" numbers of more than 1,000 a day.
"The president is not satisfied with 1,000 people a day and will use all levers of power that he has available," the official said.
President Barack Obama and George W. Bush both deployed National Guard troops to the border at different times during their administrations.
Bush sent 6,000 National Guard troops to the border in similarly supportive roles for two years, starting in 2006, to allow the training of new border agents. Known as Operation Jump Start, those troops helped with the installation of fences and vehicle barriers and did not directly engage with immigrants.
Obama deployed 1,200 National Guard troops to the Southern border two years after Jump Start ended in 2010. The New York Times at the time reported that Obama was under pressure from lawmakers to increase security at the border after a smuggler allegedly killed a prominent rancher.
The Trump administration official on Wednesday said those who participated during the Bush years likely "will have flashbacks" to that operation and "the type of mission [troops] will be fulfilling."
Trump is taking the bolder step of sending in the military after seeing a sharp rise in immigrant apprehensions this year. U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics show 36,695 apprehensions of people trying to cross the southwest border in February 2018, up from 23,555 in the same month the previous year.
The president earlier this week said he's been discussing the idea of using the military at the border with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
He also made a series of statements on Twitter and to reporters this week declaring that any deal with Democrats to provide a solution for so-called "dreamer" immigrants is dead and urging the Senate to change its rules to make it easier to pass immigration bills with a GOP-majority alone.
"We have horrible, horrible and very unsafe laws in the United States," Trump said on Tuesday. "We are preparing for the military to secure our border between Mexico and the United States."
Congress in late March only provided $1.6 billion for Trump's signature border wall for repairs for existing fencing and other levees on the border, far short of the $25 billion that Trump sought.
The final compromise spending bill, which Trump reluctantly signed, included funding for only an additional 328 Customs and Border Protection officers. It also would require the Immigration and Customs Service to reduce the number of detention beds, not increase them, as Trump wanted.
The Trump administration also said Monday that it is drafting another immigration package to send to Congress aimed at making it harder for illegal immigrants to seek asylum and lengthening the time federal authorities can detain those apprehended to allow for court review of their cases.