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US military should fight enemies, not detain immigrants

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Defense Secretary Jim Mattis recently told reporters that two military bases in Texas will house immigrants — Fort Bliss in El Paso and Goodfellow Air Base in San Angelo. This comes on the heels of last week’s request by the Trump administration that the U.S. military get ready to house 20,000 immigrant children.

While many Americans are justly horrified by the callous treatment of immigrant families, there is another population for whom this policy shows a wanton disregard: the U.S. Armed Forces. The brave men and women of the American military are trained warfighters, not caregivers. President Trump should stop misusing their proficiency and patriotism to advance a dishonest immigration agenda.

{mosads}Military responses are appropriate when our country is faced with a true national security threat, but the idea that immigrants pose such a threat has been thoroughly debunked. Many studies show that immigrants commit crimes less often than native-born Americans, and cities with growing immigrant populations are becoming less violent, not more.


For all the Trump administration’s alarmist rhetoric about gangs infiltrating the U.S., recent Border Patrol data shows that fewer than one-tenth of one percent of migrants captured at the Southern border are even suspected of having gang affiliations. President Trump’s claim that immigrants are bringing “drugs and crime” simply does not add up.

Detaining immigrants on U.S. military bases is just one part of a broader policy of militarizing immigration enforcement, and follows the deployment of 4,000 National Guard troops to the border this spring.

Military leadership and ordinary soldiers on the border know this makes little sense. Former military officials publicly complained that deploying troops to the border means less time for training, and risks needlessly provoking Mexico.

Moreover, U.S. troops cannot even participate in enforcement. On the ground, soldiers confirm they are stuck doing mundane, logistical tasks like feeding horses, shoveling manure, and handling paperwork. One sergeant said soldiers mostly “fix flats” on Border Patrol vehicles.

A soldier stationed at Fort Bliss — one of the bases slated to serve as a detention facility — expressed concern over whether the installation could care for immigrant families and children “in a humane way.”

Still, administration officials seem determined to create the false perception that immigrants pose a threat warranting military intervention. Rather than using the influence of his position to strengthen support for the military, the president is using the military to increase the influence of his political position.

In the process, the military becomes a tool of Trump’s campaign rhetoric and messaging. We should not let elected leaders draw American soldiers into political agendas which are unworthy of their commitment, and into jobs for which they neither volunteered nor trained.

The detention of immigrants on military bases echoes an inglorious period in America’s past: the internment of thousands Japanese-Americans during World War II. Those detained between 1942 and 1946, like the immigrants being detained now, were victims of a cruel policy driven by unfounded fears.

Americans should be disturbed the Trump administration is endeavoring to use the military to carry out policies that ought to have been kicked into the dustbin of history.

The American military must remain focused on its core mission: defending the American homeland, and safeguarding our prosperity and way of life against direct threats. We find ourselves in the midst of an increasingly chaotic world.

China represents an emerging power which threatens American primacy, political instability in the Middle East fuels anti-American extremism, and the U.S. is entangled in long-term negotiations with North Korea’s unpredictable leader. American service members must train and prepare for confronting real threats, not entertaining dark, xenophobic falsehoods about any kind of “infestation.”

To be sure, this mission creep within America’s military predates the Trump administration. Instead of fighting enemies, soldiers have been called upon to act as nation-builders, economic development professionals, and even interim mayors of Afghan cities. This newest role is only the latest — if also the most egregious — departure from the military’s rightful and honorable mission.

When speaking to reporters about housing the immigrant families on military bases, Secretary Mattis claimed, “Providing housing, shelter for those who need it is a legitimate government function.” It may well be, but it’s not a legitimate function of our military and I suspect, deep down, he knows it.

The Trump administration’s policy of criminalizing and incarcerating families crossing the southern border has been unnecessary and counterproductive. With this latest development, President Trump is politicizing our military and militarizing our politics. If his military leaders won’t pressure him to stop the practice, the American people should.

Mark Hannah is a research fellow at the Eurasia Group Foundation. 

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