The US sending 540 troops to Mexico border to assist agents during the pandemic

The military personnel will help as Border Patrol is potentially exposed to coronavirus

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The Department of Defense has approved sending 540 additional military troops to the United States’ border with Mexico to augment the front lines during the coronavirus pandemic, a Customs and Border Protection spokesperson confirmed Wednesday.

The Department of Homeland Security requested additional personnel to assist federal border agents on March 19, according to the spokesperson and a memo obtained by The San Diego Union-Tribune. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper approved the resources last week.

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“The coronavirus pandemic has placed the country in a public health crisis and DHS is working with its partners across the government to take action to prevent the further spread of the virus in a ‘whole of America’ approach,” said the CBP spokesperson.

The United States has previously deployed troops and maintains an average of 5,000 military personnel along the entire southwest border to help Border Patrol by performing non-law enforcement duties.

In February, the local Border Patrol sector chief said 90 military personnel were helping Border Patrol agents run surveillance along San Diego’s border with Baja California.

The latest deployment will augment those troops when border agents face possible exposure to COVID-19. Two San Diego police officers have already become sickened by the illness.

“This is not a military operation, nor is this about illegal immigration. The sole intent of this support is to increase (Border Patrol’s) situational awareness and the number of personnel on the line so that (Border Patrol) can better mitigate risks of the coronavirus pandemic,” said the CBP spokesperson.

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Roughly 300 employees of the Department of Homeland Security — which includes Border Patrol among other agencies — have tested positive for COVID-19, and more than 8,500 are under quarantine because of possible exposure to the coronavirus, according to an internal report at the department from Monday, which the Los Angeles Times obtained from a House Democratic aide.

Brandon Judd, president of a union of Border Patrol employees, told the Times on Wednesday that for both agents and the public, the administration is “exposing them to dangers that are unnecessary.”

“I don’t think the agency is doing enough to protect agents or individuals we come in contact with, period,” he added. Judd, who has been a close ally of the White House, said at least six Border Patrol agents have tested positive and 42 are under quarantine.

It remains unclear how many of the additional 540 troops will come to the San Diego Sector. The Department of Defense did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

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A senior Trump administration official said President Donald Trump is considering every option to address the “profound public health threat of uncontrolled cross-border movement during a pandemic.”

“The Administration is considering every option to help slow the spread of the virus, minimize health threats entering the country, and protect Americans while ensuring essential travel for workers, movement of goods, and security of supply chains are not impeded,” the official said.

Border Patrol agents have been automatically returning migrants who illegally cross the border from Mexico into the United States under emergency coronavirus measures. In San Ysidro, a Border Patrol agent said they’ve been returning people to Mexico within 45 minutes to an hour and a half.

Mexico declared a health emergency on Monday and issued stricter “stay at home” rules after its number of confirmed coronavirus cases surged past 1,000, leaving at least 29 people dead.

Last week, Trump contemplated sending troops to the border with Canada, but ultimately decided not to deploy them. Canadian officials slammed the idea saying it would damage bilateral relations between the two countries.

In joint agreements with Canada and Mexico, the United States closed both the northern and southern borders to tourist and recreational travel to limit the spread of the new coronavirus on March 20. Essential travel and commerce is still permitted.

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San Diego Area sector chief Aaron Heitke said Border Patrol agents are already benefiting greatly from military resources the Trump administration previously deployed to the U.S. southwest border.

He said about 90 military personnel are “running surveillance” for the agency, using Border Patrol equipment including cameras and binoculars, which he said frees up agents to patrol the border. He said the military troops were not using the Department of Defense surveillance equipment.


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