Refugee advocates are calling on United States President Joe Biden to stop militarising the country’s southern border with Mexico, after his administration said it would send 1,500 additional troops to the region.
The Department of Defense’s announcement on Tuesday would bring the total number of active duty soldiers deployed to the border to 4,000.
That comes in addition to the thousands of National Guard members that Texas Governor Greg Abbott sent to the border under Operation Lone Star, according to Fernando Garcia, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights, an immigration advocacy group based in El Paso, Texas.
“Now, without a doubt, we can say that the US-Mexico border is one of the most militarised borders in the world,” Garcia told Al Jazeera.
The plan comes as the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency also installs hundreds of surveillance towers to further secure the southern border.
Biden, a Democrat who recently announced his campaign for re-election, is likely attempting to signal he is tough on immigration, Garcia explained. But Garcia considers the situation at the border to be a humanitarian crisis — one that cannot be solved with deterrence measures.
“That continues to perpetuate this idea that the border is an issue that can be resolved through enforcement, in this case the deployment of the military. That is very wrong because it fails to recognise the nature of what we’re seeing,” Garcia said.
The plan to increase the troop presence at the border was unveiled a week before public health order Title 42 is set to expire on May 11. Invoked in 2020 under then-President Donald Trump, Title 42 has allowed US authorities to expel asylum seekers as part of the government response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The troops are anticipated to arrive by May 10 and will be stationed at the border for 90 days.
The Biden administration said the extra troops will play a support role, “performing non-law enforcement duties such as ground-based detection and monitoring, data entry, and warehouse support”.
The Department of Homeland Security also has said the troops will not interact with migrants and asylum seekers. But the agency said it needs the extra troops to “free up” law enforcement to respond to an anticipated increase in migration after Title 42 sunsets.
Already, the southern border is seeing a huge increase in crossings, with over 20,000 people in CBP custody at the end of April.
In recent months, the Biden administration has scrambled to implement new policies and send resources to handle the backlog of arrivals who have waited months, even years, to access the immigration system.
‘Intimidation and deterrence’
Bilal Askaryar, interim manager for the Welcome With Dignity Campaign, a coalition of human rights groups pushing for a more “humanitarian” immigration system, said the administration has had months to prepare for the end of Title 42.
He was disappointed to see the Biden government respond with troops, in what he called a “theatrical show of force”.
“We have to think about what kind of message that sends little kids whose only option was to come to the border with their parents,” Askaryar told Al Jazeera. He added that many asylum seekers are fleeing violent instability in countries like Sudan and Afghanistan, only to be met with soldiers in camouflage uniforms at the US border.
Alvaro Huerta, directing attorney of litigation and advocacy at the Immigrant Defenders Law Center, echoed those concerns.
The sight of soldiers can spark fear for asylum seekers who are escaping violence from their own governments, Huerta told Al Jazeera. “Obviously that can trigger some of the trauma that these people are fleeing.
“Having the military there, even if they’re not doing enforcement work, the message that we’re sending is that we want to keep people out,” Huerta said. He summed it up as a policy of “intimidation and deterrence”.
Instead of sending troops, he called on the Biden administration to send resources to communities to help welcome newcomers. “We really want the administration to rethink this.”
Asylum is a legal process that allows refugees to seek sanctuary in a foreign nation, should they fear persecution in their home country.
Biden campaigned on a promise to restore access to asylum and bring a more humane approach to immigration. In August 2020, he said, “We’re going to restore our moral standing in the world and our historic role as a safe haven for refugees and asylum seekers.”
But the US president recently proposed a rule similar to a Trump-era measure that would prevent people from seeking asylum in the US if they pass through a third country without seeking and being denied asylum there first.
His administration is also re-introducing speedy screenings similar to those implemented by Trump to handle the immigration backlog. “He’s doubling down on exactly what he criticised,” Askaryar said.
“We’re most concerned that due process rights of migrants and asylum seekers are going to be diminished,” Huerta added, stressing that people may be sent back to violence and even death.
“That’s what we have to remember — these are folks who are seeking our protection, who should at least get their day in court to make their claim.”