DALLAS—Armed federal agents temporarily shut down an international border crossing on the U.S.-Mexico border this week in preparation for a caravan of poor, unarmed migrants who are 1,500 miles away.
The migrants would have to walk the equivalent of Dallas to New York City before reaching the bridge separating the agents on the U.S. side from Juarez, Mexico.
On Sunday and Monday, dozens of agents with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) amassed at Paso del Norte, the port of entry separating El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico. With helicopters hovering overhead the agents—some wearing ski masks to obscure their faces—conducted drills on the bridge while pedestrians and motorists looked on. The Juarez website Puente Libre was on scene as the drills took place and was the first to report on them.
Immigrant advocates and attorneys say the exercises are completely uncalled for, a preview of over-zealous military tactics that may come with Trump’s plan to send more troops to the border than are currently fighting ISIS in Syria.
“It’s to create a feeling of panic that there’s some kind of national emergency at the border and that’s just not the case,” said Iliana Holguin, an El Paso immigration attorney.
A CBP spokesperson confirmed the exercises are part of the Trump administration’s response to a caravan of Central American migrants walking through Mexico to the United States.
“CBP is currently monitoring the situation regarding the caravan migrating from Central America toward the U.S. border,” the spokesperson said in a statement, adding “we will not allow a large group to enter the U.S. unlawfully.”
Members of the caravan, Holguin noted, plan to seek asylum by turning themselves into authorities at ports of entry, not enter illegally. Doing so is well within their rights under U.S. law, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in June. “You are not breaking the law by seeking asylum at a port of entry,” Nielsen said.
“It just demonstrates how it’s all a show, how they’re interested in the optics of it: Trump wants people to think that we’re under attack somehow,” Holguin told The Daily Beast. “Instead of using their resources to walk around in riot gear on the bridge, they should be training people to process asylum seekers because that’s what’s going to be needed in a few weeks when the caravan arrives.”
Agents in riot gear and troops heading to the border are simply ways of deterring migrants from claiming asylum, Holguin said. On Tuesday morning, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton admitted as much during an appearance on Fox News, saying, “As people hear about this in Central America, it does act as a deterrent.”
Additionally, border agents have resumed their positions at the apex of the bridges at Paso del Norte, where they stop asylum-seekers from physically entering the United States and claiming asylum—a practice called “turnbacks” that The Daily Beast reported on in June.
“For the past two weeks they have had security officers asking people before they entered the American half of the bridge to show their passports so as to not allow more than a certain number of asylum-seekers over per day,” said Bob Pena, head of the El Paso County Republican Party who owns businesses in Juarez and traverses the bridge several days a week.
Billions of dollars of goods pass through ports of entry like Paso del Norte each day, as well as both Mexican and American citizens who work and live on either side of the border. While it’s unclear what, exactly, U.S. troops will do when they reach border towns like El Paso, Holguin and others say the intention of ICE and CBP agents in riot gear at Paso del Norte is clear.
“The government is trying to manufacture a crisis here just so it can throw some troops and riot police in front of cameras for a photo op,” said Alan Dicker of the Detained Migrant Solidarity Committee, a volunteer advocacy group that helps migrants find lawyers and make bail. “In the meantime, these measures needlessly put migrants' lives at risk and make life miserable for borderlanders.”