By Carla Babb
President Donald Trump said Wednesday that as many as 15,000 U.S. troops would go to the Mexican border to stop caravans of Central American migrants from crossing into the United States.
“It’s a dangerous group of people,” the president said of the migrants after earlier calling them “very bad thugs and gang members.”
But one woman from El Salvador who was part of the latest group headed north said she wanted Trump to know that she and the others were not “delinquents.”
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“We are not going over there to steal or cause harm to anyone. We want to work by using our humble hands, with sweat, and earn a little bit of money. We pray to God that we make it there and find jobs,” she said.
Trump’s 15,000 number is far more than the roughly 5,200 active-duty soldiers the Pentagon plans to send, along with the 2,100 National Guardsmen already there. U.S. Defense Department officials told VOA that about 2,000 additional active-duty troops would be placed on standby to help those already assigned to the border.
This would make the total number of troops deployed to the U.S. southern border larger than the number of Americans fighting terror groups in Iraq and Syria.
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, denied that the deployment of active-duty troops to the border was a political stunt to help Republicans in next week’s midterm elections.
“We don’t do stunts in this department,” Mattis said. “The support that we provide to the secretary for homeland security is practical support based on the request from the commissioner of customs and border police.”
The president also denied that his tough talk on immigration was nothing but a fear-mongering ploy as Republicans face the possibility of losing control of Congress to Democrats.
The U.S. troops assigned to help with border security are legally prohibited from engaging in domestic law enforcement, such as arresting migrants crossing the border.
Defense officials told VOA that military personnel would be moving Border Patrol agents around, setting up razor wire fencing and building temporary housing facilities for border agents when needed.
A Pentagon official said some of the troops might be armed, based on where they are sent along the border and what their jobs will be.
The main caravan of impoverished Central Americans is still in Mexico and more than 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) from the United States. It will be several weeks before they reach the U.S.-Mexico border.
Earlier Wednesday, Trump claimed in a tweet that the caravan included “very tough fighters” who “fought back hard and viciously” against Mexican police.
Trump was referring to reports Sunday that a group of migrants broke through a gate at the Guatemala-Mexico border and fought with police. Several officers were hurt and one migrant was killed, but it was unclear how.
Trump has also criticized Mexico, saying Mexican soldiers “were unable or unwilling to stop” the migrants. But White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told Fox News that Mexico had “stepped up in an unprecedented way” by stopping vehicles, forcing the migrants to walk and slowing down their progress.
There are currently four caravans heading to the U.S. border: the original group that left from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, more than two weeks ago; the second caravan that pushed its way into Mexico from Guatemala earlier this week; and two new caravans that just started out from El Salvador.
“We are hardworking people and if we migrate there [the U.S.], we want to be treated like human beings,” one member of the El Salvador group said Wednesday.
Altogether, more than 7,000 migrants are moving toward the U.S. border, hoping to escape violence and find opportunities that do not exist for them at home.
But Trump calls U.S. borders “sacred” and repeated his appeal Wednesday that anyone who wants to immigrate to the United States do so legally.