US President Joe Biden is sending 1,500 additional soldiers to the United States border with Mexico as the country prepares for the lifting of contentious, pandemic-era restrictions later this month.
In a statement on Tuesday, the Pentagon said it had approved a request from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to send the added military personnel to the border for 90 days.
The troops could arrive by May 10, a Pentagon spokesman told reporters.
The soldiers will perform “non-law enforcement duties” such as data entry and warehouse support, DHS said in an earlier statement, attributing the new deployment to an “anticipated increase in migration” at the southwest US border.
“This support will free up DHS law enforcement personnel to perform their critical law enforcement missions,” the department said.
The move comes amid concerns that the end of Title 42, a policy first imposed by ex-President Donald Trump in March 2020, will lead to a dramatic increase in the number of asylum seekers arriving at the US-Mexico border in search of protection.
Set to expire on May 11, Title 42 has allowed US authorities to rapidly turn away most migrants and refugees who arrive, without having to assess their asylum claims. It has drawn widespread condemnation from rights groups.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday afternoon, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre also confirmed that the additional Department of Defense personnel would perform “administrative tasks” at the frontier.
“They will not be performing law enforcement functions or interacting with immigrants or migrants,” Jean-Pierre said.
The 1,500 new forces would add to an ongoing deployment of about 2,500 National Guard troops.
Asked about the expanded deployment during a news conference, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador told reporters that the US is a sovereign nation and that Mexico respected its decisions.
But rights advocates slammed the plan, saying it sends the wrong message to asylum seekers, many of whom are fleeing widespread violence, political instability, poverty and other systemic problems in their home countries.
“This will absolutely send [the] message of militarizing the border to deter migrants,” Gregory Chen, director of government relations at the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), said on Twitter.
“People seeking asylum should be met with humanitarian professionals, welcoming volunteers, and medical and mental health professionals. Not soldiers,” Bilal Askaryar, interim campaign manager of the #WelcomeWithDignity Campaign, also tweeted.
Restrictions on asylum
The Biden administration has been trying to stem the flow of asylum seekers to its southern border for months, as the US president – who is seeking re-election in 2024 – faces criticism and political pressure from Republicans over the increased arrivals.
Vice President Kamala Harris told would-be migrants in 2021: “Do not come.”
In late April, Washington announced that it would open migration centres in several Latin American countries where people could apply for entry into the US away from the border.
However, the administration also stated that it would expedite deportations of people, including families, seeking to enter the US to petition for asylum. Under the new measures, those caught crossing the border irregularly would also be banned from re-entry for five years.
While Biden was critical of the anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric of the Trump administration, the Democratic president has been criticised by immigrant rights groups for keeping many of those policies in place and further restricting asylum during his time in office.
On Tuesday, Jean-Pierre stressed that Biden is striving to put a “modernised” immigration system in place. “He wants to do this in a humane way and do it differently certainly than it was done in the last administration,” she said.
But restrictive US immigration policies, when paired with narrow pathways to legal entry into the country, have been blamed for pushing migrants into dangerous situations that leave them vulnerable to abuse.
After a fire at a migrant detention centre in the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez killed at least 39 people, immigrant rights advocates blamed the tragedy on US immigration policies.
“Unfortunately, as the United States takes more extreme steps to close the border to asylum seekers, these types of tragedies will likely become more common,” Victoria Neilson, supervising lawyer at the National Immigration Project, a legal advocacy group, told Al Jazeera at the time.
Most of those killed were from Guatemala, while other victims hailed from Honduras, El Salvador, Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador.