WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Thousands of US troops could travel to the Mexican border in front of a caravan of migrants heading to the United States, US officials told Reuters on Monday, offering much higher estimates than the original 800 predicted up to 1,000.
The Pentagon declined to comment on possible troop numbers, saying that planning for a mission to launch the US military into a politically-charged operation just days before the November 6 congressional elections was still ongoing.
President Donald Trump, who has taken the election campaign of the Central American migrant caravan before the vote, said on Twitter that the military would wait for the procession – a much more direct role in the confrontation with the migrants than the US defense officials already have proposed.
"Many gang members and some very bad people mingle in the caravan that leads to our southern border," Trump tweeted.
"Please go back, you will not be admitted to the United States unless you go through the legal process, this is an invasion of our country and our military is waiting for you!" He added.
U.S. Officials told Reuters last week that the military will have no active law enforcement role, instead sending engineers, pilots and other support personnel, including some who may be able to cope with mass control on the American side of the border. Representatives of the Pentagon declined to comment on Monday.
Last week, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis authorized the deployment of troops and other military resources on the US-Mexico border. US officials told Reuters they would begin deploying on Tuesday and their mission was approved by mid-December.
This approval could be extended, they stated.
Mattis' authorization last week enabled the military to provide "mission-enhancing capabilities" to the US Customs and Border Guard to support the construction of temporary barriers and shelter.
On Sunday, Matti told reporters that some building materials had already been pushed to the limit, including barriers. He said the Ministry of Defense is still planning the logistics and details of the operation.
Mattis suggested that mission takes time to develop and said it was a "step-by-step" operation. US officials have told Reuters that the support mission is coordinated by the US Army's Northern Command.
Trump, who campaigned against illegal immigration to win the 201
If Republicans lose Congress, it could make it much harder for Trump to pursue his political agenda during the remaining two years of his tenure.
Estimates on the size of the caravan vary from about 3,500 to more than double. Some migrants have broken off the trip, deterred by the difficulties or the opportunity to lead a new life in Mexico. Others joined him in the south of Mexico.
Trump's decision to turn the military on seems to be a departure from previous practice, at least in recent years, when such operations were conducted by National Guard troops – mostly part-time military personnel who are often called to respond on domestic emergencies.
There are already 2,100 US National Guard forces at the border, sent after a previous Trump request in April.
The decision to deploy active forces this time gives the Pentagon the ability to mobilize greater capabilities faster than would be immediately available with the Guard, Reuters said.
Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Alistair Bell