Troops At US-Mexico Border Could Stay There for Three to Five Years, Report Says

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Marines with the 7th Engineer Support Battalion, Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force 7, walk along the California-Mexico border at the Andrade Point of Entry in Winterhaven, California.
Marines walk along the California-Mexico border at the Andrade Point of Entry in Winterhaven, California. (U.S. Army/Army Spc. Ethan Valetski)

AUSTIN, Texas — The Department of Homeland Security wants troops to remain at the U.S.-Mexico border for at least the next three years, its officials told the Government Accountability Office during a review of the Pentagon's mission there.

"DHS anticipates needing at least the current amount of [Defense Department] support for the next three to five years, possibly more," stated the 90-page report titled "Southwest Border Security: Actions Are Needed to Address the Cost and Readiness Implications of Continued DOD Support to U.S. Customs and Border Protection."

The ongoing mission is approved through Sept. 30, which is the end of fiscal year 2021, with about 3,600 troops now serving in support of Border Patrol, according to the Defense Department.

Since President Joe Biden took office in January, he has rolled back some of former President Donald Trump's border actions, including the national emergency declared at the border in February 2019. That declaration and other Trump memos served as the Pentagon's basis for approving Homeland Security's support requests, according to the report.

However, the Pentagon has said Biden's actions have not impacted the mission or the presence of troops at the border.

The Pentagon told the GAO that the military would prefer "to provide temporary assistance until DHS can independently execute its border security mission."

Congress asked the GAO to review the military's support to security operations at the southwest border, which has occurred off and on for the last 19 years. The most recent mission began in April 2018 at the request of Trump as the number of people apprehended for crossing the border without documents more than doubled — from nearly 400,000 individuals to more than 850,000 individuals, according to the report.

Homeland Security is expected to continue requesting support from the Pentagon, so the GAO report recommended ways that the Defense Department could improve its approval process of requests that would better estimate the cost of the support and the impact to readiness. The cost estimate of the mission from April 2018 to September 2020 was nearly $1 billion, according to the report.

Five of the report's seven recommendations suggested ways the Defense Department could improve its analysis and reporting of cost and unit-level readiness impacts of supporting border operations. The Pentagon agreed with the recommendation of filing its reports to Congress on time, but disagreed with the remaining recommendations. Overall, Defense officials stood by their analysis and decision-making processes.

However, the report stated that after the Pentagon approved the fiscal year 2020 support request, the Defense Department could not fulfill all of the support it pledged because it did not have the sufficient number of units available and able to do the work.

The final two recommendations asked each department's officials to work together to define a common outcome for the Pentagon's future support. The Defense Department again disagreed because it would "represent a more permanent and enduring commitment of its resources and may create an impression that DOD has a border security mission, among other things."

The GAO countered the Pentagon's position is "not consistent with the operational reality that DOD has actively supported DHS at the southern border in varying capacities since DHS's inception nearly two decades ago."

To reach these recommendations, the GAO assessed how the DOD evaluated requests for support, how it reported its costs to Congress and how the two departments have collaborated when planning operations. The version of the report released publicly Tuesday removed some information the Pentagon deemed sensitive, the GAO said.

The GAO reviewed all 33 assistance requests and extension requests for support at the border sent between April 2018 and March 2020. Investigators then reviewed four decision packages from the Pentagon from April 2018 to July 2019. These packages approved and implemented most of the assistance requested from DHS and informed site visits the GAO conducted to border locations where National Guard, Army or Marine Corps personnel were operating in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas, according to the report.

Defense officials used six points to analyze requests, according to the report. While they were thorough in looking at legality, potential use of lethal force, risks to safety, and appropriateness, the report found the Pentagon fell short when analyzing the cost and impact on a unit's readiness.

When the Pentagon estimated it would spend about $1 billion of non-reimbursable funds on the mission between 2018 and 2020, it did not factor in costs such as expenses at bases that provided support to deployed troops and the cost of reimbursing National Guard troops for expenses that they personally incurred during the first year on the mission. It also failed to file a statutory report to Congress in 2020 that is meant to aid lawmakers in oversight and funding decisions, according to the report.

The Pentagon approved 15 bases to provide support to deployed troops, but this financial support for the mission wasn't reported to Congress. Davis-Monthan Air Force Base near Tucson, Ariz., has provided tents, latrines, meals, fuel, transportation, logistics, cargo processing and increased force protection for about 600 troops staying on base while working at the border. This costs about $10 million per year, but the base commander told the GAO that this financial burden on the base was only tracked through informal situation reports to Air Force headquarters.

When it came to the troops, commanders shared experiences of missed training and the strain of rotating troops to the border every 30 days. The report cited one Army aviation battalion lost a rotation at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., because of a border deployment and Air Force officials told the GAO that a unit providing support at a base near the border had one training exercise canceled and another delayed, because of the assignment. The disruptions created additional delays planning future exercises.

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