Homeland Security and Defense Department Officials Joint Press Conference on the Defense Department Deployment to the Southwest Border

Kevin McAleenan, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner; Air Force Gen. Terrence J. O'Shaughnessy, commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command


Ronald Reagan Building Press Briefing Room, Washington, D.C.

STAFF: Appreciate everybody attending today's press conference. The purpose of today's press briefing is to provide an update on Operation Secure Line and the Department of Defense deployment at the southwest border.

Each of the principles here today will deliver a few remarks, after which we'll open it up for a few questions. With that, I'll turn it over to Commissioner Kevin K. McAleenan.

KEVIN MCALEENAN: Good afternoon and welcome. Commanding General O'Shaughnessy of U.S. Northern Command and I wanted to update you on our efforts to prepare for enhanced security operations in order to address the potential for large groups of migrants to arrive at the U.S. border as part of a so-called caravan.

As of this afternoon, we continue to track a large group of approximately 3,500 traveling through southern Mexico with the stated intent to reach the U.S. border. This group is near the Chiapas-Oaxaca border in southern Mexico.

We're also aware of a second large group of migrants at the Ciudad Hidalgo border crossing between Guatemala and Mexico. Size estimates for the second group are around 3,000 and made up of family units and unaccompanied children who have placed themselves in the hand of violent human smugglers paying 7,000 per person to make the journey.

They're incentivized to try and cross by -- our border by the gaps in our legal framework and the expectation that they will be allowed to stay. This means that at any given moment, there are tens of thousands of intending migrants between the Guatemala border and the U.S. border moving towards us at any given time.

Within that flow included are about 17,000 criminals last year, along with hardened smugglers and people from over 100 countries around the world, and our immigration system is unable to effectively process and repatriate those without the right to remain in the United States due to extensive backlogs in our courts and court restrictions on detaining people through their immigration proceedings.

What is new and challenging about this caravan phenomenon is the formation of multiple large groups, which present unique safety and border security threats.

For the two large groups that we are following, we have already seen the first one make unlawful entry across two international borders and the second, still in Guatemala, has deployed violent and dangerous tactics against both Guatemalan and Mexican border security teams.

Accordingly, we are preparing for the contingency of a large group of arriving persons intending to enter the United States in the next several weeks. Our message to the organizers and participants of this caravan is simple, as the President and Secretary Nielsen have made clear, we will not allow a large group to enter the United States in an unsafe and unlawful manner.

For those that seek to cross the border illegally, we will apprehend them and fully enforce the laws of the United States. For those that seek to make an asylum claim safely and lawfully at a port of entry, the government of Mexico has already offered you protection and employment authorization.

If you are fleeing alleged persecution at home, you have arrived at a safe place to make your claim. If you're an economic migrant seeking to join family members in the United States, you should return home and apply for the appropriate visa.

While CBP and its DHS partners processed over 38,000 inadmissible persons claiming fear to return to their home country safely and efficiently at our ports of entry last year, there's no benefit to be part of a large group.

The caravan has already been offered protections in Mexico, you will not be allowed to enter the U.S. the same way. I would like to note here that we very much appreciate the efforts of the government of Mexico to address this challenging situation in accordance with the highest principles of protection of human rights and respect for migrants, while upholding the integrity of the Mexican border and Mexican immigration law.

We also appreciate the continuing communication and efforts of our Central American partners, especially Guatemala, to address the challenges of these large groups.

In terms of our preparations at the border, yesterday we launched Operation Secure Line, a multi-phased and flexible operational response designed to ensure that we are prepared for any number of contingencies involved with the arrival and attempted crossing of a large group of intending migrants at our border, whether they attempt to cross at a port of entry or unlawfully in between ports of entry.

An important principle here is that border security is a law enforcement mission, and as the unified border security agency of the United States, CBP is well equipped, along with support from interagency federal, state, and local partners to manage multiple contingencies of varying size.

Since we initiated our planning two weeks ago, we have completed updated assessments at each of our 26 crossing points on the southwest border and already deployed 100 specially trained special response team operators to prepare plans for each location.

As information on the approach of a large group at a port of entry is available, we have at the ready 1,000 CBP officers, including 250 tactical enforcement officers and mobile response team professionals with training on managing contingencies including riot control.

Between ports of entry, we have an additional 830 Border Patrol agents on standby ready to deploy, to include 140 special operations agents, 385 mobile response team agents and an additional 350 agents from unaffected sectors.

These agents will be augmented and supported by over two dozen CBP air assets for surveillance and mobile response, including four Blackhawks, six additional helicopters, as well as multiple fixed-wing assets and unmanned aerial systems.

Due to the large size of the potential caravans that may arrive at the border however, the Department of Homeland Security has further requested the support of the Department of Defense. This is in addition to the 2,000 National Guard personnel already augmenting operations under Operation Guardian Support and making an impact in border security, supporting apprehensions and drug seizures since last year.

Specifically, CBP has requested that DOD provide support in several key areas, significant air and ground transportation and logistics support to move CBP personnel and equipment to locations of operational focus, engineering capabilities and equipment to help ensure our ability to secure our legal crossings in key areas of the border, medical support units, mobile housing for sustaining CBP deployed personnel and extensive planning support.

I will turn it over to General O'Shaughnessy to detail DOD's robust response to our request for support in just a moment, but let me close by saying that regardless of the operational contingencies we face, along with its interagency partners and unprecedented support from DOD, CBP will ensure border security.

We will not allow a large group to enter the U.S. unlawfully. We will maintain lawful trade and travel to the greatest extent possible. We will act in accordance with the highest principles of law enforcement. We will treat intending migrants humanely and professionally at all times.

And the safety of CBP personnel -- especially our law enforcement personnel on the front lines, as well as the traveling public -- will remain paramount. Thank you.

GENERAL TERRENCE J. O'SHAUGHNESSY: Well, thank you, Commissioner McAleenan, for the partnership and the opportunity today to speak about how U.S. Northern Command, as the operational command for the Department of Defense's forces, is providing mission-enhancing capabilities to the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, to harden the southern border.

DOD has a long history of supporting DHS. And now, more than ever, U.S. Northern Command has a well-established relationship with the Department of Homeland Security.

Examples include the recent support for Hurricane Michael, Hurricane Florence, our cyber-security initiatives and our critical infrastructure protection that we're doing with the Department of Homeland Security.

Our mission of homeland defense is inextricably linked to the Department of Homeland Security's mission of homeland security. Operation Faithful Patriot, as we've named the military operation supporting CBP in hardening the southwest border, is the latest example of this critical partnership.

In a macro sense, our concept of operations is to flow-in our military assets with a priority to build up southern Texas, and then Arizona, and then California.

We'll reinforce along priority points of entry, so as to enhance CBP's ability to harden and secure the border. The specific request for assistance is for the active duty military to enhance the capacity and capabilities of CBP by providing robust military capabilities.

Our first level of effort with CBP will be to harden the points of entry and address key gaps in areas around the points of entry. And here's a list of just some of the capability that we're bringing.

First, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, they bring amazing expertise, earned through years of experience under challenging conditions, including the current work of building the border wall.

We're also bringing three highly experienced and capable combat engineering battalions with expertise in building temporary vehicle barriers, fencing -- and we’re bringing them in with heavy equipment which, as we speak right now, is line-hauling towards Texas.

We're bringing military planning teams that are already actively engaged with their CBP counterparts. We've integrated command and control capabilities. We're working with our aviation, engineering, medical and logistic resources to bring them to bear.

We're bringing three medium-lift helicopter companies in. These are aircraft equipped with the latest technology. They're enhanced with optics.

They have NVGs. They have sensors that will allow them to operate at night and be able to provide assistance to bring our CBP personnel exactly where they need to be, regardless of the conditions. We'll be able to spot-identify groups and rapidly deploy CBP personnel where they're needed.

The helicopters will ensure the CBP agents can arrive in the most austere locations. They can fast-rope down if they need to. They can conduct and work their law enforcement activities. These aircraft will also ensure those agents needing medical assistance will be able to get that assistance when required.

In addition, we're bringing military police units. We're bringing strategic airlift to bear. As we sit right now, we have three C-130s and a C-17 that is ready to deploy CBP personnel wherever they need to be at any time.

We have deployable medical units. We have the logistical support. We have command posts. We're bringing, again, command posts so we can combine with CBP, and we have combined command posts where our operational commanders will be working side-by-side to integrate our efforts.

And make no mistakes. As we sit right here today, we have about 800 soldiers that are on their way to Texas right now. They're coming from Fort Campbell, they're coming from Fort Knox. They're moving closer to the border. They're going to continue their training, and they're ready to deploy to be actually employed on the border.

We're deploying aviation assets that could quickly transport our CBP personnel.

But it isn't just the men and equipment and the soldiers that we're bringing. We've already brought critical material that's already in place.

We have enough concertina wire to cover up to 22 miles, already deployed already to the border. We have additional concertina wire that we can string, with over 150 miles available. Additionally, looking at where the reinforcers are needed so we can get it exactly where CBP wants us to put it.

By the end of this week, we will deploy over 5,200 soldiers to the southwest border. That is just the start of this operation. We'll continue to adjust the numbers and inform you of those.

But please know, that's in addition to the 2,092 that are already employed from our National Guard, Operation Guardian Support, that's been so effective.

And my final point I would like to stress is that everything I've discussed here fully adheres to our current authorities and governed by law and policy.

We know border security is national security. And the U.S. military will advance CBP's capability to harden the border. The Department of Defense is already -- and will continue to provide -- support to CBP to secure the border. Thank you.

STAFF: With that, we'll open it up for a few questions.

Tara?

Q: General O'Shaughnessy, Tara Copp with Military Times. A couple of questions, sir. First, why weren't National Guard forces used instead, since it's typically a state governor role to bring those troops to the border?

Secondly, how will you ensure that that active duty forces along the border will be operating in compliance with posse comitatus? And will those forces be armed? Thank you.

GEN. O'SHAUGHNESSY: Yeah, thanks for those questions. First, to be clear, Operation Guardian Support continues on, 2,092 National Guardsmen employed right now under the governor's authority. That will continue.

This effort -- Faithful Patriot -- is complementary to that effort, but brings additional capability and capacity to help CBP.

With respect to posse comitatus, everything that we are doing is in line with and adherence to posse comitatus.

Q: Sir, why not use the National Guard forces? And will the forces -- the active duty troops on the way -- will those soldiers be armed?

GEN. O'SHAUGHNESSY: To be clear, we are using the National Guard forces, and that's under Operation Guardian Support. Very effectively being employed as we speak right now.

We're bringing additional capability with Title 10 forces under -- under Faithful Patriot. We have the authority given to us by Secretary Mattis. The units that are normally assigned weapons, they are, in fact, deploying with weapons.

Q: (Inaudible) with ABC News. My question is for the CBP commissioner.

You're talking about a caravan that's already dwindled down to 3,500 people. The last caravan eventually dwindled down to only 400 people by the time it reached the border. And yet you're talking about numbers for the active duty military that would be double that. Why do you feel that this is necessary, and is this a political move shortly before the election?

MR. MCALEENAN: Yeah, this -- this group is very large, 3,500 is much larger than the Via Crucis caravan or caravans we've seen in the past.

We do see other large groups forming. Again, there's 3,000 or so at the Guatemala-Mexico border now, hoping to join up with the lead group. And we do see other caravans forming in El Salvador and elsewhere in Central America.

So we -- we've got to be prepared for the potential arrival of a very large group. And because of the size, we -- we want to be able to handle it effectively and safely.

What we saw when this group crossed the -- the Honduras-Guatemala borders, they did it very forcefully. They pushed past the Guatemalan security forces.

Even more risky was on the Guatemala-Mexico border, where it was a combination, of you, know, near-rioting on the bridge and then, crossing illegally, the Rio Suchiate.

So we -- we saw those tactics, which are different than we've seen in -- in past large groups. And we want to be ready for that. And we think this opportunity to harden our ports of entry, to be ready for mobile deployment between ports is a better way to prepare for the potential arrival of a large group like this.

Q: (OFF MIKE) And do you see this move as political to assuage voters that might be concerned about these caravans?

MR. MCALEENAN: No, this is a law enforcement operation from CBP 's perspective and we partner with DOD all the time to help secure our border.

Q: Question for the commissioner. Foreign nationals who reach American soil and attempt to exercise their legal right to seek asylum in the United States, how do you plan to proceed?

MR. MCALEENAN: Yeah, under -- under law -- existing law and policy we'll process people that we apprehend crossing illegally or arriving and presenting lawfully but without documents at our ports of entry the same way we're doing currently.

Q: Can you be taken into custody? not returned to Mexico?

MR. MCALEENAN: That's an ongoing conversation on how we best handle that group. If they come as a large group we are talking with Mexico. We're also considering all potential options in terms of administration authority.

Q: Commissioner, where is the -- (inaudible), CNN -- can you tell me where the border patrol additional services are coming from? Are any coming from the northern border or other areas around the country?

MR. MCALEENAN: Yes, so first of all I mentioned the special operations groups, this is the Border Patrol Tactical Unit, the Border Patrol Search, Trauma and Rescue teams. That's a significant portion of the mobile troops.

We also have agents identified as members of mobile response teams that come from sectors all over the country. And then because the northern border sectors aren't directly affected by a potential caravan arrival we would potentially pull a few hundred agents from the northern border if we saw the need for a full-scale operation.

Q: (OFF MIKE) Is this happening in this first part or is that potentially in the (future ?)?

MR. MCALEENAN: That's potentially in a future phase as the caravan gets closer and depending on the size of the caravan.

Q: Question for -- question for General O'Shaughnessy, would you say this is a national emergency and how would you rate it on par with military efforts in Syria and Iraq where -- potentially you could have more troops on the border than in those operations?

GEN. O'SHAUGHNESSY: I think -- I think the president has made it clear that border security is national security. That is the direction we've given, that's the direction that we're marching to.

Our -- our orders are very clear. We are engaged. We're here to support CBP. And we're going to secure the border.

STAFF: Folks, we have time for a couple more questions. Sir?

Q: This is for the commissioner, two quick questions. First is, do you have a sense for how many additional miles of temporary fencing or vehicle barriers you need or are going to be done in this operation?

And then second is, the inspector -- I think it was Inspector General, not GAO, recently had a report on the previous caravan and said that the way that CBP handled funneling or preventing people from coming through the ports of entry actually sent them between the ports of entry. Any lessons learned from that that you're going to do different?

MR. MCALEENAN: So, first of all, we -- we've made a broad request for assistance, which is being responded to robustly as General O'Shaughnessy outlined. We're going to use fortifications to -- to help both at the ports of entry, so we can manage the potential arrival of a large group trying to enter through a port of entry -- infrastructure. But also in the immediate areas around ports or other vulnerable areas of the border.

So -- so that's still being worked through with DOD and exactly what that structure would require and it would be obviously dependent on which direction we see a group moving.

Now you can only process a certain number of people at a time, even if they're presenting lawfully. So we would want to work with the Government of Mexico if this group does make it all the way to border. And, again, the President of Mexico has offered, very generously, protections, employment authorization, shelter and status to this group in Mexico.

So if you're really seeking asylum you've reached a safe place and you've been given a generous offer by the first country that you've crossed into from Central America, so I think that's an important point to focus on.

So we'd want to work with Mexico to manage that -- that flow and ensure that people don't try to cross illegally. That is more dangerous. They generally have to engage with a smuggler and it -- it's even less orderly than a large group arriving.

So that's -- that's what we're going to be focused on in partnership with our government of Mexico counterparts.

Q: ... anything you've been able to do to actually change that incentive structure that existed last time, where processing I guess throttling them through the ports of entry sent them in the other direction?

MR. MCALEENAN: So I think that's questionable, we -- we -- as I noted in the outset, we -- we processed 38,000 claims of fear over return to a home country at our ports of entry in the last fiscal year. That is far and away a -- a new record.

So we are providing access to asylum seekers at our ports of entry lawfully as -- as directed. So I think that's -- that's an appropriate point to understand.

STAFF: Last question –(inaudible)

Q: Hi, I'm (inaudible) from -- excuse me, AP. I just wanted to clarify if people were crossing between ports of entry, are they -- will they be able to claim asylum if they make it through? What will happen in terms of trying to claim asylum if they manage to get through?

MR. MCALEENAN: I -- I think part of the goal is to deter people from trying to cross between ports of entry. We're -- we're going to have a substantial capability with CBP assets, supported with extra mobility and capability with our DOD partners.

So we don't want them to cross that way in the first place, and we will apply the full extent of our laws to those who do cross illegally.

STAFF: All right everyone, thank you very much. If you have any follow ups, we're happy to take for action. Appreciate you taking the time today.

MR. MCALEENAN: Thank you.

STAFF: Thank you.