President Donald Trump has ordered National Guard troops "immediately" to the southern U.S. border with Mexico to stop illegal immigration, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said Wednesday, because "it's time to act."
"The Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security have been directed to work together with our governors to deploy the National Guard to our southwest border, to assist the border patrol," Nielsen told reporters at the daily White House press briefing.
"We do hope that the deployment begins immediately," she said. "We're working with haste to agree on that" with border-state governors.
"It will be strong," she said of the planned National Guard contingent. "It will be as many as is needed to fill the gaps we have today."
Fox News reported Wednesday night that Trump had signed a memorandum ordering the troops to the border to secure it while a wall was being built.
She said the National Guard personnel would act as "support" for Border Patrol agents.
Trump said Tuesday he would order the troops, and told leaders in Mexico he would abandon the North American Free-Trade Agreement without assurances of help on securing the boundary.
Trump has long suggested he could use money allocated for the U.S. military to build the border wall for which he has so far been unable to secure congressional funding.
Trump was briefed Tuesday on his administration's border strategy by Nielsen, Defense Secretary James Mattis, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford, Chief of Staff John Kelly, and other senior officials.
A senior White House official also said the administration was crafting legislation to make it harder for refugees to gain asylum in the U.S. and loosen restrictions on illegal immigrants apprehended near the border.
In the past, the Defense Department has helped Homeland Security with border security.
Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have both deployed National Guard troops to the border during their presidency to increase security, with Obama sending as many as 1,200 personnel in 2010.
Trump has tweeted about border security since the weekend after reports more than 1,000 Central Americans, primarily from Honduras, were traveling north toward the U.S. border with the help of Pueblo Sin Fronteras, a group that has organized several similar "refugee caravans" in recent years.
More broadly, the president has faced pressure from immigration hawks to show he remains committed to their cause after signing a $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill last month that only included funding for fencing and security improvements at the border and that 23 Senate Republicans refused to support because it was too bloated.
U.S. law might also restrict how much the military can do to carry out President Trump's wishes, however.
The late-19th century Posse Comitatus Act is viewed as prohibiting the use of the military to execute domestic laws, according to a 2013 report by the Congressional Research Service.
Still, Nielsen insisted Wednesday that Trump was acting because Congress has failed to sufficiently address border security and illegal immigration, telling reporters "the president is frustrated.
"He has been very clear that he wants to secure our border," she said. "He has been very clear that he wants to do that in a bipartisan way with Congress.
"What you're seeing is the president taking his job very seriously in terms of securing our border and doing everything we can without Congress to do just that.
"As soon as Congress comes back, we hope to work on that."
Nielsen said her department sees dangerous levels of illegal immigration and drug trafficking across the border because smugglers are taking advantage of "loopholes" in U.S. laws — among them "catch-and-release," which Trump eliminated last year.
The policy required Border Patrol agents not to turn the aliens over for deportation because Homeland Security lacked space to house them while awaiting hearings.
"Due to these loopholes, we found that they must be released after 20 days," she told reporters. "That magnet of lawlessness still draws people by the thousands to our borders.
"Why not attempt the journey if you have no belief you'll ever be caught?
"We must change the environment and reduce those factors — and, unfortunately, time and time again — Congress has failed to.
"We will not allow high illegal immigration levels to become the norm," Nielsen continued, noting 300,000 aliens every year "are violating our sovereignty as a nation.
"This will never be acceptable to this president."
Bloomberg News contributed to this report.
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