EL PASO — President Donald Trump on Thursday doubled down on his intent to militarize and fortify the border against a caravan of Central American asylum-seekers slowly making their way toward the United States, saying his administration recently did away with "catch and release" for undocumented immigrants and plans to erect tents to hold future border crossers — including their children — until their immigration cases are resolved.
Trump offered no details on how his administration would be able to indefinitely hold families for long periods and still comply with a court settlement known as the Flores agreement that limits how long undocumented minors can be detained by the government. He also didn't provide details on the number or location of the tents but said they're necessary to stop a coming "invasion" of migrants.
"These illegal caravans will not be allowed into the United States and they should turn back now," Trump said. "We're putting up massive cities of tents, the military is helping us incredibly well."
He also said any asylum seeker who throws rocks at U.S. military personnel will be considered to be carrying a weapon.
"Anybody throwing stones, rocks like they did to Mexico, and the Mexican military ... we will consider that a firearm," he said.
But despite Trump's claim of ending catch and release, a shelter director in El Paso said just hours before the president's speech that he was alerted by immigration authorities that more than 300 immigrants would be released into the El Paso community because Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials don't have the space to detain the immigrants after they apply for asylum.
A current tent facility in Tornillo was recently expanded to hold 3,800 immigrants, up from the 400 or so the facility held earlier this year. That facility is designated as a holding center for unaccompanied minors who cross into the U.S. illegally.
It was the latest in a series of presidential declarations about immigration in the runup to Tuesday's midterm elections. Last week, Trump said he was contemplating an executive order to end birthright citizenship — although constitutional experts say the president doesn't have that power — then announced a military deployment to the southern border that started with a promise of 5,200 troops and has since increased.
Catherine Tactaquin, executive director for the California-based National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, said the move to send troops to the border is an “election-period stunt” that carries severe implications for border communities.
“There are well-documented cases of an increase in racial profiling, stress and tension" when troops are sent the border, Tactaquin said. “You can imagine what that kind of [military] presence can mean.”
The military operation, which has been dubbed “Faithful Patriot” will send between 7,000 and 15,000 troops to the U.S-Mexico border, 2,000 of whom are either en route or are already in Texas, according to federal officials. A Department of Defense fact sheet on the operation provided to The Texas Tribune shows that soldiers will be deployed from at least nine states and more than a dozen military installations to “coordinate operation, engineering, medical, and logistic support” with the Department of Homeland Security.
Along the border, the arrival of active duty military forces is making some residents nervous.
Bishop Garrison, an Army veteran who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom and currently serves as the interim executive director of the Truman National Security Project, a progressive policy think tank, was stationed at El Paso’s Fort Bliss during his military service. He said border residents have a reason to worry about their cities turning into militarized zones in the coming days.
“It’s hard for anyone to say with any complete certainty that we will see 'Red Dawn' or we’ll see something more akin to a training exercise, we really don’t know,” Garrison said, referring to the 1980s movie in which a tranquil Colorado town becomes a war zone after a foreign invasion. “To think we need the military to step in and handle this in any way, without even fully knowing what the issue is at hand, is absolutely ludicrous. I can only imagine how stressful and scary this might be.”
Bishop said the mission outlined in the Defense Department fact sheet seems intentionally broad, "because they don’t know what kind of issues they are going to encounter,” he said. “Anything could pop up that they would need to then argue that they had authorization to do or to handle.”
McAllen Mayor Jim Darling said previous deployments of the National Guard and state troopers to the Rio Grande Valley created a negative image of border communities as “unsafe.”
“The publicity of the National Guard and Department of Public Safety and the politics of saying, ‘I’m going to protect the border,’ the main effect to me is hurting local border communities,” Darling said. “The border crisis is really a crisis of our immigration policy and foreign policies in Central America.
In nearby Progreso, a small town on the Rio Grande, chain-link gates have been installed on the pedestrian walkways of an international bridge connecting the town with Nuevo Progreso, Mexico.
B&P Bridge Company, which owns the crossing, put up the gates Saturday after being approached by Customs and Border Protection, said Julie Guerra-Ramirez, the company’s bridge director.
“By no means was it a mandate,” she said. “It’s all in preparation in case the caravan decides to come this way. All we’re doing is taking precautions.”
Sandra Cavazos, a spokesperson for Customs and Border Protection’s office on the bridge, declined to comment about the installation of the gates.
As the migrant caravan makes its way through southern Mexico, migrants who have already reached the border have recently started camping out on the international bridge connecting El Paso and Juarez as they wait to present themselves at the port of entry and request asylum. Customs and Border Protection officials have been stationed at the bridge for months and have routinely turned back would-be asylum seekers before they cross the international boundary. Agency officials say that’s because they don’t have room to process the influx of immigrants seeking safe haven.
Garrison, the El Paso military analyst, said trade and everyday cross-border travel at the international bridges could be affected by the troop deployment.
During a press conference announcing the operation on Monday, Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin K. McAleenan said his agency would try to “maintain lawful trade and travel to the greatest extent possible." But Garrison said it’s unlikely that daily commerce won’t be affected.
“I am incredulous, I find that very hard to believe,” he said.
Texas would be the hardest hit by any slowdown. From January to August of this year, the Laredo customs district, which includes the Rio Grande Valley, has processed more than $153 billion in two-way trade with Mexico, according to WorldCity, a Florida-based company that analyzes trade data. The El Paso district, which includes New Mexico, has processed almost $52 billion.
U.S. Rep Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, said he doesn't expect the military deployment to affect cross-border trade in his district.
“I don’t see it happening,” he said. “Trade has a lot of influence and I think the day that trade is impacted, the president and the administration on the other side of the aisle will have their own pressure to deal with from large corporations, from the energy sector to agriculture. I think you’ll see a change of policy just from that pressure.”
Hannah Wiley and Teo Armus contributed to this story.