RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
President Trump has said the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border is urgent, and he has ordered the National Guard to deploy in order to curb illegal immigration across the border. Yesterday, he directed the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security to work with governors in border states to make this happen. NPR's John Burnett joins us now from West Texas. Hey, John.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.
MARTIN: Do we know why the president took this step at this moment?
BURNETT: So the president said troops are needed on the border until more of the wall can be built down here. The administration has been frustrated about the so - that the so-called Trump effect is wearing off. Remember, right after he took office, immigrants were afraid to cross the border, and apprehensions, which are a rough measure of those illegal crossings, dropped sharply. Now, the numbers are creeping back up. Yesterday, his Homeland Security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, briefed reporters.
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KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: We continue to see unacceptable levels of illegal drugs, dangerous gang activity, transnational criminal organizations and illegal immigration flow across our border. This threatens not only the safety of our communities and children but also our very rule of law.
BURNETT: The jump in illegal crossings are being led by people who are not very scary. They're mothers with small children and minors traveling alone coming up from Central America. They say they're fleeing murderous gangs that have taken over their neighborhoods in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. And the president wants this presence of military troops on the border to act as a deterrent so that if they come, they'll - it will be harder to cross. And they also want to make it harder to ask for asylum.
MARTIN: You talk with people along the border a lot. What are those folks saying about whether or not they're seeing an increase in this kind of trafficking?
BURNETT: Well, this - I mean, numbers are down dramatically, that, you know, you're seeing fewer people crossing than at any time in 47 years, even lower than they were when George Bush or Barack Obama called out the National Guard in their administrations. The ACLU reacted to the troop deployment saying the president is trying to create a crisis where there is none. Having said that, Border Patrol agents have been telling me for months that crossings of these two groups are up again, that they're emboldened because the Trump effect is wearing off.
They're seeing big groups of women and children and unaccompanied kids, which get special treatment under the law. Agents can detain these - some immigrants for a time, then they have to release them until their day in immigration court comes up. And that can be years because of the backlog of cases. The administration says the next step is to change the laws to speed up the deportation process and narrow the door for asylum. But immigration lawyers point out U.S. laws permit anyone to present themselves at the border and tell them that they have a credible fear to return home.
MARTIN: Right. OK, so, John, as you mentioned, this isn't the first time that a sitting president has dispatched National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border. What happened in those instances? Were the troops - did they do what they were supposed to do?
BURNETT: Well, as you said, this is nothing new. There have been uniformed military troops on the border for more than the past dozen years. President George W. Bush called up 6,000 guard in 2006. At the time, the country was afraid of drug violence from the Mexican cartels spilling over into U.S. border communities. Then in 2010, President Obama deployed 1,200 National Guard troops under Operation Phalanx to continue the mission.
If the past is any guide, the previous guard deployments cost the federal government well over a billion dollars. The soldiers were used for surveillance. They put them in observation towers with binoculars and night-vision goggles. They’ll assist with narcotics interdictions. And they’ll help process arrested crossers caught by the Border Patrol, which is a time-consuming process, and let those agents return to the field. What the National Guard will not do is arrest people who cross the border legally. That’s the job of federal immigration agents.
MARTIN: NPR’s John Burnett reporting from West Texas this morning. Thanks, John.
BURNETT: You bet, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.