Gripping scenes have played out along the U.S.-Mexico border since President Donald Trump ordered troops there ahead of the approaching caravans of migrants, some of whom ran toward a border fence Sunday amid clouds of tear gas fired by U.S. immigration authorities.
And Georgians have had front row seats for the action on both sides of the border.
Among the 5,600 troops are scores of servicemen from Georgia’s Fort Stewart. Deployed to Texas and Arizona, the Fort Stewart-based 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade Headquarters unit is flying federal immigration officials around in Blackhawk helicopters.
Troops from the Fort Stewart-based 90th Human Resources Company, which is part of the 3rd Sustainment Brigade, are providing human resources support for the effort at the border.
Further, a Marietta-based Georgia National Guard helicopter crew with four troops is doing reconnaissance and surveillance in the Rio Grande Valley. They are taking part in a mission that predates Trump’s decision to send active duty troops to the border. One of the Georgia Guardsmen, Lt. Col. Jason Ellington, estimated his crew has helped federal immigration authorities locate 50 migrants who have illegally crossed the southwest border since last week.
“It’s been pretty busy,” said Ellington, whose crew is expected to return to Georgia in mid-December. “There are people sometimes in ones and twos and sometimes in thirties and forties coming across the border, either walking across, swimming across, rafting across, you name it.”
Meanwhile, Atlanta-area immigration attorneys and volunteers are rushing to the Mexican side of the border.
Sarah Owings, an Atlanta-based immigration attorney, arrived in Tijuana Wednesday to provide free legal help for the asylum seekers. She said a shelter there was holding 4,000 people.
“People don’t really know what is going on and how it all works,” she said. “So we try to make sure they understand what the law says and that way they have some idea of whether or not they have a case for asylum.”
Half of likely U.S. voters support sending U.S. troops to the border to block illegal immigration, according to a national Rasmussen Reports poll conducted in late October, while 42 percent disagree.
Troops from across the nation are now erecting fencing, barbed wire and vehicle barriers and providing medical care on the U.S. side.
The military’s mission — it has cost taxpayers $72 million so far — is supposed to end Dec. 15. But the Pentagon is now considering keeping troops on the border into January, The New York Times reported Thursday.
Trump ordered the troops to the border in the days leading up to the midterm congressional elections, while warning, without evidence, there were criminals, gang members and “unknown Middle Easterners” in the caravans. His critics argued the caravans include women and children fleeing poverty and violence in Central America.
The president, who has also called the caravans an invasion, defended the use of tear gas at the border, saying the authorities were “being rushed by some very tough people.” U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen issued a statement this week saying some of the migrants threw projectiles at U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials as they tried to breach border fences.
“We’re here to provide additional resources to CBP, but we’re not here in a law enforcement capacity,” Maj. Sean Stapler, an operations officer for Fort Stewart’s 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade Headquarters and a veteran of four deployments to Afghanistan, said in an email.
Mary Bauer, deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, visited with migrants, including children, in Tijuana this month. She visited to gather research for a pair of lawsuits aimed at thwarting the Trump administration’s restrictive asylum policies.
“I just heard so many terrible stories that led people to come and to do their best to access the asylum system, often without success for lots of reasons,” said Bauer, who is based in Atlanta. “They have fled persecution. And the shelters were all full.”
“People did not have safe places to stay,” she added. “Lots of people were hungry.”
Ariel Prado of Atlanta was heading to Tijuana Thursday to educate asylum seekers about their legal options.
“There are so many people in Tijuana right now. And the way the federal government has set it up — they have generated a backlog,” said Prado, a program manager with the Innovation Law Lab, a nonprofit organization that helps immigrants and refugees.