A week out from the US midterm elections, the Pentagon said on Monday it is sending 5,200 troops, some armed, to the Southwest border to respond to a caravan of mostly Honduran migrants and refugees, prompting sharp rebuke from immigrant and human rights groups.
The move comes amid President Donald Trump’s repeated threats against the caravan, including cutting off aid to Central American countries and Mexico if they do not block the refugees and migrants.
“Sending active military forces to our southern border is not only a huge waste of taxpayer money, but an unnecessary course of action that will further terrorise and militarise our border communities,” said Shaw Drake of the American Civil Liberties Union’s border rights centre at El Paso, Texas.
Now around 1,200km from the US border, the initial wave of refugees and migrants left Honduras more than two weeks ago. Estimates vary, but anywhere from 3,500 to more than 7,000 people are now part of the first group heading north through Mexico. Smaller groups have since left Honduras and El Salvador and hundreds of migrants and refugees crossed the Suchiate River between Guatemala and Mexico on foot Monday after being pushed back by Mexican authorites the day before.
Many of the participants told Al Jazeera they are fleeing violence and economic instability, including unemployment.
Critics say the Trump administration has drummed up fear around the caravan in order to rally voters behind his anti-immigration agenda ahead of the November 6 midterm elections.
“The migrant caravan is full of women and children fleeing violence, poverty and government repression,” tweeted Democratic Senator Ed Markey from Massachusetts. “Sending thousands of troops to turn them away as if they are foreign invaders reflects the profound paranoia, fear and hate fueling this administration’s immigration policies.”
Trump has called the caravan an “invasion” and without evidence, said “Middle Easterners” and “gang members” are among its participants.
On Monday, Air Force General Terrence O’Shaughnessy, the Northern Command leader, told reporters that that 800 troops were already on their way to southern Texas. Explaining that the number will reach 5,200 by the end of the week, he said “Operation Faithful Patriot” will focus on Texas first, then Arizona and California.
There are already about 2,000 National Guardsmen on the US’s southern border, but now advanced helicopters will enable border protection agents to swoop down on migrants, O’Shaughnessy said. The military troops are intended to assist the border patrol, not engage directly with migrants, he added.
The caravan’s goal is to seek asylum at an official port of entry, however.
Migrants are entitled under both US and international law to apply for asylum, but it may take while to make a claim.
Caravans coming from Central America have made their way to the US border for years without much fanfare. Migrants and refugees often leave in groups for safety purposes. This month’s caravan is unusual for its large size, however, and those travelling north seem to be so far undeterred by the president’s threats.
In April, a caravan that had about 1,500 people at its peak also caught Trump’s ire. Many of its participants attempted to stay in Mexico and only a few hundred people continued to the US border, seeking asylum at an official port of entry, rights groups said.
According to the New York Times, about 400 were referred to the US for “credible fear” interviews. Many who passed that step are still awaiting further immigration hearings.
Rights groups also argue that there is little evidence to suggest that increasing border restrictions has an effect on individuals decision to flee their country.
“In many cases we are talking about people who have no choice but to leave their homes, and people who will continue to keep trying to find a safe place to live, despite the policies of Mexico, the USA, or any other country that may be safer than theirs,” Amnesty said in a statement last week.
“The hardline border controls used by a series of US governments over the last 30 years have been shown to be ineffective at reducing migration and only condemn people to more precarious and dangerous routes that put human lives at risk and fuel smuggling network,” the international rights organisation added.
Michelle Mittelstadt, director of communications of the Migration Policy Institute, said “there is no crisis at the border”.
“We believe that the US is capable of dealing with the caravan without such extraordinary measures, and that is well within the capacity of the government to determine among those arriving at the border who has a legitimate protection claim and who does not,” she told Al Jazeera, adding that overall activity at the border is a “mere fraction” of what it was in the 1990s and early 2000s.
The White House is also weighing additional border security measures, including blocking those travelling in the caravan from seeking legal asylum and keeping them from entering the US.
The escalating rhetoric and expected deployments come as the president has been trying to turn the caravan into a key election issue with just days to go before the midterm elections that will determine whether Republicans maintain control of Congress.
“This will be the election of the caravans, the Kavanaughs, law and order, tax cuts, and you know what else? It’s going to be the election of common sense,” Trump said at a rally in Illinois on Saturday night.
Trump, attempting to fulfill a number of campaign promises to crackdown on immigration, has implemented a “zero tolerance” policy at the border, drawing strong criticism from rights groups. Earlier this year, Trump was forced to end his administration’s practice of separating children from their families at the border after public outcry. Hundreds of families remain separated.
The president’s dark description of the caravan belied the fact that any migrants who complete the long trek to the southern US border already face major hurdles, both physical and bureaucratic, to being allowed into the United States.
The Mexican, Guatemalan and Honduran governments also fortified their respective borders and increased security, attempting to turn back the migrants and refugees or keep them within from moving further north.
Rights groups said the responses may violate international law.
On Sunday, a Honduran man was killed when Mexico federal police used rubber bullets and tear gas on a large group of migrants and refugees attempting to force their way across the Guatemala’s border with Mexico. Mexican officials denied using rubber bullets, but refugees and migrants, as well as the media, including Al Jazeera witnessed federal police shooting rubber bullets during Sunday’s confrontation.
Additional reporting by Sandra Cuffe in Tapachula, Mexico.