5/08/2019 — 

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, U.S. Senators Jack Reed (D-RI), Ranking Member of the Armed Services Committee, Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and seventeen of their colleagues sent a letter to Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan raising concerns over the expanding mission of active duty servicemembers deployed to the southern border.

The senators demanded a legal justification for increased military activities at the border, including a loosening of restrictions on contact between servicemembers and migrants.

According to recent reports, the Department of Defense is preparing to ease rules that restrict interactions between servicemembers and migrants crossing the border – further militarizing the humanitarian crisis at the border and increasing risks to active duty servicemembers.

“We urge you to revoke these waivers to prevent the continued escalation of military involvement in immigration enforcement activities and the further politicization of the use of servicemembers to inappropriately respond to a divisive domestic policy issue,” the Senators wrote.

In today’s letter, the Senators also asked for additional information regarding what training and guidance – if any – servicemembers have received regarding rules for the use of force, as well as legal restrictions including Posse Comitatus and other Department of Defense policies.

“Ensuring that servicemembers are prepared to operate in a law enforcement context – rather than a combat zone – is critically important, and we seek evidence to demonstrate that troops deployed to the border are appropriately trained for these circumstances,” the Senators wrote.

In addition to Reed and Blumenthal, today’s letter was signed by U.S. Senators Kamala Harris (D-CA), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Edward J. Markey (D-MA), Bob Casey (D-PA), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD).

Text of the letter follows:

Dear Acting Secretary Shanahan:

We write to express our continued alarm regarding the expanding mission of the active duty servicemembers deployed to the southern border, most recently evident in your decision to issue waivers to a longstanding Department of Defense (DOD) policy that prevents military personnel from directly interacting with migrants in order to support a new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) request for assistance.

As you know, in response to this request, DOD has agreed to provide 160 personnel to transport migrants, 100 personnel to distribute meals and conduct welfare checks, and 20 military attorneys to represent DHS and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in immigration court and before the Board of Immigration Appeal. We urge you to revoke these waivers to prevent the continued escalation of military involvement in immigration enforcement activities and the further politicization of the use of servicemembers to inappropriately respond to a divisive domestic policy issue.

This development is particularly concerning given the “military protective activities” that President Trump authorized on November 20, 2018, including “a show or use of force (including lethal force, where necessary), crowd control, temporary detention, and cursory search” if deemed necessary to protect Customs and Border Protection (CBP) personnel.[1] While your Department has failed to provide adequate legal justification for these “military protective activities,” you have simultaneously authorized the deployment of additional troops to perform support roles that will significantly increase their direct interaction with migrants, putting servicemembers at greater risk of violating Posse Comitatus under the pretense of humanitarian assistance.

We request legal justification not only for the military protective activities authorization, but also for the expansion of servicemembers’ role to include support functions that will necessitate direct interaction with migrants. Additionally, we request information about the training and legal guidance provided to servicemembers deployed to the border regarding rules for the use of force, as well as legal restrictions including Posse Comitatus and other DOD policies. Ensuring that servicemembers are prepared to operate in a law enforcement context – rather than a combat zone – is critically important, and we seek evidence to demonstrate that troops deployed to the border are appropriately trained for these circumstances.

The only crisis at the border is a humanitarian one, and it is a crisis that has been severely exacerbated by President Trump’s own policies. The recent approval of additional DHS assistance is particularly distressing given the culmination of policy decisions that have resulted in an increasingly militarized border as your Department continues to allocate resources to support the DHS border mission. Members of Congress have consistently expressed concern regarding the troop deployment, including the politically-motivated timing of the initial active duty deployments, the potentially negative impact on military readiness, the cancellation of joint military exercises with allies due to budgetary constraints, and the absence of a timeline or detailed cost estimate.

Given these outstanding concerns, we urge you to reverse the decision to provide waivers and provide legal justification for the expanding mission of active duty troops deployed to the southern border. Thank you for your immediate attention to this issue.

Sincerely,