Immigration demonstrators in Murietta, Calif., yell to a Customs and Border Protection officer, on July 4, 2014.
Immigration demonstrators in Murietta, Calif., yell to a Customs and Border Protection officer, on July 4, 2014. // Mark J. Terrill/AP

Hagel Backs General on U.S. Border Threats

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel shares one of his top general’s concern that budget cuts are hampering the military’s ability to respond to threats emerging from Central America, which in turn are destabilizing the region and prompting the recent influx of some 100,000 migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“He certainly shares [Marine Corps Gen. John] Kelly’s concerns about the threats emanating from the south, particularly from transnational criminal networks, which are causing a lot of the instability, which is encouraging these young children and their families to flee,” said Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby on Tuesday. “He absolutely shares that concern.”

Kelly, commander of the military’s U.S. Southern Command, which is responsible for all of Central America south of Mexico, South America and the Caribbean, said last week that those issues were an “existential” threat to U.S. national security. A majority of the immigrants flooding the southern border are unaccompanied minors, and some three-quarters of them have travelled thousands of miles from the Central American countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

 “In comparison to other global threats, the near collapse of societies in the hemisphere with the associated drug and [undocumented immigrant] flow are frequently viewed to be of low importance,” Kelly told Defense One last week. “Many argue these threats are not existential and do not challenge our national security. I disagree.”

The administration has scrambled to respond to the growing humanitarian crisis, and on Tuesday formally requested $3.7 billion in emergency funding from Congress, almost twice the amount that reports last week initially indicated would be requested. In the spring, Kelly asked Congress for more resources, saying his forces cannot act on a large majority of illicit trafficking events due to a lack of assets and citing growing concerns about U.S. security.

“All this corruption and violence is directly or indirectly due to the insatiable U.S. demand for drugs, particularly cocaine, heroin and now methamphetamines,” Kelly continued, “all of which are produced in Latin America and smuggled into the U.S. along an incredibly efficient network along which anything – hundreds of tons of drugs, people, terrorists, potentially weapons of mass destruction or children – can travel, so long as they can pay the fare.”

When asked whether the military is under-equipped to address the threats and protect the U.S. border, Kirby responded Tuesday, “It’s not about being under-resourced to protect this southern flank.”

“I mean, this is not a military operation,” he said, referring to Pentagon support of the response to the migration influx. “Gen. Kelly has — and the secretary shares — general concerns about the southern region, and the threat posed by transnational criminal networks, not just to eventually to our shores, but to our partners south of us.”

Three military bases are currently helping house thousands of the children, and Kirby confirmed Tuesday that the Pentagon is in discussions with the Department of Health and Human Services to expand the agreement authorizing use of Defense facilities to other installations. He emphasized the space being used to help respond to the migration wave had been vacant and was not being used, and that HHS is leading the mission, not Defense.

“We’re proud to be able to support them in this regard, but it is a temporary mission, and it’s not something that we see as an enduring arrangement,” Kirby said, continuing, “The facilities we were using for the children are already vacant facilities that were not being used for any other purpose, and I can assure you and the American people that American military operations are not being curtailed or degraded in any way by us doing this very limited, temporary support mission to help.”

Kirby said Kelly is currently in the region with Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, “to take a look at things we can do better in collaboration with our partners down there to try and get at that very real threat.”

He emphasized that budget cuts are endangering the military’s ability to effectively respond to global threats, whether south of our border or around the world.

“One of the things I think Gen. Kelly said, and again, I know that Sec. Hagel would echo it, is that with sequestration looming over, it’s not gonna help us deal with those threats any better,” Kirby said. “So we really do need to get the funding bill passed and we need to get the yoke of sequestration thrown off of us, so that we can continue to resource ourselves properly, not just in the southern hemisphere, but all around the world.”