The Obama administration believes there is “no doubt” that the root causes of U.S. border security are a national security concern, a White House official said on Thursday. But President Barack Obama’s nearly $4 billion supplemental request to Congress does not include funding for additional military resources or missions to alleviate those threats at the border or in the Central American countries where the migration of drugs, weapons and humans originates. So far, the official said, there are no active discussions about expanding the military’s role in the region to respond to the crisis.
“There’s no doubt that the relentless efforts on the part of traffickers and smugglers to get drugs, people and weapons into the U.S. undetected is a national security concern,” deputy White House press secretary Shawn Turner told Defense One on Thursday.
“This is a multi-faceted issue. While there are national security concerns, it’s not solely a military issue,” Turner continued. But the White House stopped short of endorsing a top U.S. general’s claim, later supported by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, that the crisis was an “existential” threat to U.S. national security.
Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, commander of U.S. Southern Command, or SOUTHCOM, which is charged with helping protect the southern approaches to the United States, told Defense One last week in a statement that the near collapse of societies in the region, American drug use, and the flow of illegal drugs and undocumented immigrants threaten 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, 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,” Kelly said on July 2. Kelly is the top commander for the U.S. military covering the areas of Central America south of Mexico, all of South America, and the Caribbean.
Since October, roughly 100,000 migrants have flooded the Southern U.S. border. Most of them are unaccompanied minors, and about three-quarters of the children have traveled thousands of miles north from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, through Mexico to the U.S.
Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said on Wednesday that Hagel backs Kelly’s assessment. “He certainly shares 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.”
Obama requested $3.7 billion in emergency funding from Congress on Tuesday as part of a new “aggressive deterrence strategy” and “sustained border security surge” to respond to the growing humanitarian crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border. The funding, if granted, would be directed to federal agencies such as the Departments of Homeland Security, Health and Human Services and Justice, which are straining under the pressure of the mass migration, in addition to the State Department and other international programs – but with no mention of the Pentagon. The president’s request focuses instead on additional border security personnel and immigration judges, detention and processing resources, and assistance to Central American countries for the repatriation of immigrants deported from the U.S.
Three military bases are currently housing thousands of the children under an agreement with the Department of Health and Human Services, and a fourth base was being considered last week.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin, D-Mich., on Thursday asked Obama’s nominee for the next commander of U.S. Northern Command, Adm. William Gortney, if the Pentagon could handle a significant expansion to this agreement, newly requested by HHS. “My understanding is we have the capacity to provide all the help that is required,” responded Gortney, who currently is commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, in Norfolk, Virginia. NORTHCOM is responsible for the geographic region stretching from the southern Mexico border to the Arctic.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., grilled Gortney, pushing him for details on the Central American countries’ efforts to combat the flows of illegal drugs and people. When Gortney responded he needed more information, McCain said, “I think you should know a little more about it before you come before this committee, because the facts are stubborn things.” His audible frustration directed at the NORTHCOM nominee underscores the security concerns also shared by lawmakers, and the importance of the military in the region.
Turner said that the military’s role in the region has not changed in response to the humanitarian crisis.
“Three months ago the military was playing a role in NORTHCOM and SOUTHCOM helping with the narcotics issue on the borders,” he said. “Today that role remains the same.”
But Kelly and Adm. Kirby, speaking for Hagel, have expressed concerns that budget cuts are impacting the military’s ability to maintain this robust presence in the region. Last month, a Democratic coalition in Congress called for increased resources to SOUTHCOM as part of a 20-point response to the migration influx.
“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 going to help us deal with those threats any better,” Kirby said at the Pentagon on Tuesday. “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.”
Several lawmakers indicated they would block the emergency funding ahead of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s consideration of the president’s request on Thursday.
Turner said that the White House did not ask the Pentagon for recommendations to the president’s border security expansion package. But he emphasized that options for the military to further support counternarcotic efforts are not off the table. Customs and Border Patrol and agency operations based on the U.S. side of the border are taking the lead, he said.
“Our Customs and Border Patrol agents are on the frontline of the battle to stop the illegal flow of people and contraband on the border. They are the best and most qualified resource we have for that job, and the president has and continues to seek additional resources to allow them to further protect our borders,” he said.
While the administration has yet to make a determination on the specifics of the military’s role in the response, Obama said on Wednesday during a trip to Texas that he would be open to considering sending the National Guard to the border. He met with Texas Republican Gov. Rick Perry, who, along with other Republicans, has urged Obama to send National Guard troops to Texas and other border states to help mitigate the crisis.
“The Governor’s one concern that he mentioned to me was, is that setting aside the supplemental, I should go ahead and authorize having National Guard troops surge at the border right away,” Obama said in Dallas. “And what I told him is we’re happy to consider how we could deploy National Guard down there, but that’s a temporary solution, that’s not a permanent solution. And so why wouldn’t we go ahead and pass the permanent solution, or at least a longer-term solution? And if the Texas delegation said, for us to pass the supplemental we want to include a commitment that you’re going to send some National Guard early, we’d be happy to consider it.”
Obama also emphasized that a long-term solution must attack the roots of the crisis in Central America, the source of the migration wave. “We have countries that are pretty close to us in which the life chances of children are just far, far worse than they are here. And parents that are frightened or misinformed about what’s possible are willing to take extraordinary risks on behalf of their kids,” Obama said Wednesday. “The more that we can do to help these countries get their acts together, the less likely we are to have a problem at the borders.”
El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, the three countries responsible for a majority of the children crossing the U.S. border, suffer from some of the highest levels of poverty and violence in the world, directly connected with the billion dollar illegal drug trade. As Kelly noted, these three have the first-, fourth- and fifth-highest homicide rates in the world, which “have left near-broken societies in their wake,” he said. “Although there are a number of other countries I work with in Latin America and the Caribbean that are going in the same direction, the so-called Northern Triangle (Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras) is far and away the worst off,” he said.
The military is responsible for helping fight the illicit trafficking of drugs, weapons and people in the region, through information and technology sharing, military training, joint operations and infrastructure support, according to SOUTHCOM spokesman Col. Greg Julian. The command is sponsoring four multinational exercises in 2014 that include Colombia, El Salvador, Panama, Guatemala and virtually every country in its large area of responsibility, and over 80 partnerships and events.
Maj. Beth Smith, spokesman for NORTHCOM and NORAD, said their interaction and engagements with the Mexican military have increased by 500 percent over the past three years, with 151 “engagements” and training opportunities with 3,700 Mexican soldiers and Marines in 2013 alone. U.S. commanders also participate in human rights partnerships, such as initiative begun in 1997 that brings together representatives across the military, security forces, government and society, and also assist in disaster relief.