Some 5,800 U.S. soldiers are spending Thursday’s Thanksgiving holiday stringing barbed wire and building tent camps at the Mexico border amid a growing controversy over possible violation of a 130-year-old U.S. law barring use of the military for domestic law enforcement activities.

News reports had quoted the commander in charge of the mission as saying some of the troops could begin heading home as early as this week and that the operation in support of Border Patrol forces should be completed by mid-December.

But rather than wind down the mission, the Trump administration confirmed on Wednesday it was enhancing the troops’ authority to engage in some law enforcement activities including if necessary the use of lethal force.

“The president did see a need to back up the Border Patrol [officers], and we received late last night an additional instruction authorizing us to implement additional measures. We’re sizing up what those are,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters.

Legal experts say the order could run afoul of the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, which together with an even earlier act, limits the federal government’s power to use military personnel to enforce domestic policies.

U.S. Border agents and the Coast Guard patrol the Pacific Ocean where the U.S
U.S. Border agents and the Coast Guard patrol the Pacific Ocean where the U.S. Mexico border wall enters the water at Border Field State Park in San Diego, California, Nov. 20, 2018.

The escalation stems from a White House memo issued Tuesday authorizing the military to take measures it considers “reasonably necessary” to protect federal personnel at the border. This could include “a show or use of force (including lethal force, where necessary), crowd control, temporary detention, and cursory search,” the memo said.

In speaking to reporters, however, Mattis downplayed the likelihood of lethal force being used.

“I think part of this is just putting in the crowd control barriers and the barbed wire. If there’s one thing you don’t want to walk through, any of us as human beings, it’s barbed wire. Even cows are smart enough to stay away from that stuff,” he said. He pointed out that although military police would have shields and batons, most of the troops at the border are not armed.

The troops were initially deployed to the border in the midst of a heated congressional election campaign following reports that a caravan of Central American migrants was headed for the border to seek asylum in the United States.

President Donald Trump ordered the forces to be in position to back up the Border Patrol agents in the event they were overwhelmed. Critics derided the move as a political stunt to stir passions ahead of the election, and while some of the migrants recently reached the border, there have been no violent incidents.

Members of the U.S. military install multiple tiers of concertina wire along
Members of the U.S. military install multiple tiers of concertina wire along the banks of the Rio Grande near the Juarez-Lincoln Bridge at the U.S.-Mexico border, Nov. 16, 2018, in Laredo, Texas.

Soldiers told a VOA reporter at the border this week that they have been engaged mainly in stringing barbed wire along border crossing points and building tent camps for themselves.

In an email to VOA, Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, said the Cabinet order was an “unnecessary escalation of a political stunt that risks harm to civilians and legal jeopardy for the military.”

Shamsi cited “serious concerns” about violation of the Posse Comitatus Act and questioned the authority of White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, who issued the memo, to give the military such an order.

Central American migrants gather at a temporary shelter, near barriers that s
Central American migrants gather at a temporary shelter, near barriers that separate Mexico and the United States, in Tijuana, Mexico, Nov. 21, 2018.

While none of the soldiers at the border will be spending the Thanksgiving holiday with their families, Mattis told reporters at least some of them could “certainly” be home before Christmas, another major family gathering time for Americans.

“So as long as [Department of Homeland Security] doesn’t assign us more missions to lay more wire, which they could, then we could anticipate they’d be home,” he said. “I would anticipate they would be, but some troops may not be, or some new troops may be assigned to new missions. This is a dynamic situation.”

Source: VOA news