Defense Secretary James Mattis and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen traveled to Donna, Texas, on Wednesday to visit some of the 5,900 active duty troops President Trump sent to the U.S.-Mexico border to counter a "caravan" of Central American migrants. "Let's have at it, young soldiers: What's on your mind?" Mattis asked one small group of Army soldiers. "Sir, I have a question," one soldier said. "The wire obstacles that we've implanted along the border ... Are we going to be taking those out when we leave?"
The question drew "a few smirks from those around him," reports BuzzFeed's Vera Bergengruen. "The most visible role U.S. troops have served since they began arriving on Oct. 29 has been stringing up concertina wire, a razor wire that is notoriously hard to remove." And laying out anywhere from 22 miles to 170 miles of razor wire appears to be their primary mission. "We'll see what the secretary says, okay?" Mattis answered, pointing to Nielsen, widely tipped to be fired soon. "Right now, the mission is put them in."
The troops — like the 2,100 National Guard troops Trump sent to the border in April — won't be allowed to arrest or detain anybody and can't enforce immigration or criminal law.
Subscribe to The Week
Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.
Mattis described the "absolutely legal" deployment as a "moral and ethical mission" to counter illegal immigration. He said his mother — who, Bergengruen notes, Mattis previously said emigrated from Canada as an infant — "told me how hard it was to get into America. So believe me, we want legal immigration." And the deployment wasn't unprecedented, he said, citing President Woodrow Wilson sending the Army to the border in 1916 to fight "Pancho Villa's troops."
"What are the short- and the long-term plans of this operation, sir?" another young soldier asked Mattis. "Short term right now, you get the obstacles in so the border patrolmen can do what they gotta do," Mattis said. "Longer term, it's somewhat to be determined."
Continue reading for free
We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.
Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.