The Pentagon will have to be involved in security along the southwestern border for at least three more years, Homeland Security officials told Congress‘s chief watchdog in a new report Tuesday that dings both sides for failing to settle on a mission and account for all the costs of relying on the military.
Troops and military equipment are used to clear brush migrants use to hide in, maintain the Border Patrol’s fleet of vehicles, act as spotters on the lookout for illegal crossings, and fly air missions to spot crossers and to ferry agents to remote areas to intercept groups of migrants.
Those missions are likely to be needed for at least three to five more years, Homeland Security officials told the Government Accountability Office.
“DHS officials plan to request assistance from DOD for at least the next 3-5 years, according to DHS officials that served on the Interagency Planning Team,” the auditors said.
GAO said that was the stance of the department in October, when the Trump administration was still in control. It’s not clear how the new Biden administration would affect the situation.
National Guard troops have been surged to the border under the last three administrations, and the Defense Department is currently obligated to provide support at least through September, which is the end of fiscal year 2021.
During the Trump years the military performed a wide range of border tasks, large and small.
Some troops have been used to open trunks on cars being transported by rail, so border inspectors can more quickly go through them. Troops also serve as spotters, looking for illegal crossings and directing Border Patrol agents to intercept them.
GAO’s audit dinged the Defense Department for not filing reports to Congress detailing the costs of helping on the border, and said the department uses the wrong yardsticks to measure those costs, too.
And the GAO said that given the plans for ongoing defense assistance, the two departments should work out a common outcome plan.
Pentagon officials rejected most of the GAO’s recommended changes. They defended their own yardsticks for measuring costs, and said formalizing a relationship with Homeland Security on border operations would be crossing a line the Defense Department doesn’t want to cross.
“DoD support is provided to assist DHS in filling temporary gaps in capabilities needed to achieve DHS border security objectives,” wrote Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Robert G. Salesses. “Agreeing to a common outcome beyond fiscal year 2021, which would represent a more permanent and enduring commitment of DoD resources, may create an impression that DoD has a border security mission.”
Mr. Salesses said while the Pentagon is acting as a backstop, Congress must fund Homeland Security well enough so it doesn’t need to rely on the Defense Department for border security.
The GAO said the Defense Department was ignoring the reality that it’s supported border security for nearly two decades, including nearly $1 billion spent over the last three years.