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1,500 service members will be deployed to the U.S.-Mexico border this week

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The Biden administration is deploying 1,500 active duty military to the southern border this week. The White House says they won't be there to patrol the border, but instead will help with administrative work. Many more people are expected to try to enter the United States with the end, later this month, of pandemic-era restrictions. They allow the U.S. to refuse entry to more asylum seekers. It's the latest in a long history of posting U.S. troops at the southern border. To talk about that history, I'm joined now by Arizona State University professor of Latin American history, Alex Avina. Welcome to the program.

ALEX AVINA: Thank you so much for having me.

RASCOE: So let's start with your reaction. What did you think when you heard that troops were heading to the Mexican border once again?

AVINA: You know, I had a very typical historian response to this by thinking this is actually the rule when it comes to U.S.-Mexico border politics, not the exception. Because if we think about the history of the U.S.-Mexico border, it required the U.S. invasion of Mexico to create what is now known as the U.S.-Mexico border. So this is part of a long history, and Biden has joined with a series of his predecessors that goes back to the mid-19th century.

RASCOE: I mean, so his immediate predecessor, President Trump, deployed active duty troops to the border to help processing, you know, large caravans of migrants. The Biden administration says this is different from that, that troops won't be there to enforce the law or to intimidate migrants. I should say that, you know, the Trump administration also said that they weren't there to police, but the Biden administration says that the troops that they are sending there will free up Border Patrol officers to do on-the-ground work. What do you think about this distinction that the Biden administration is trying to make?

AVINA: I don't see much of a distinction at all. I mean, primarily there's a legal aspect to this that goes back to the late 19th century - right? - with the Posse Comitatus Act, which explicitly lays out that the U.S. Army cannot participate in domestic law enforcement capacities. So there really isn't that distinction legally or historically. I think it's a political distinction.

RASCOE: I mean, so you mentioned that this is a very long history. Can you talk to me about the history of American troops at the border, you know, recognizing that obviously the way that, you know, the U.S. got the southern border was through military action? But in more recent history, as you talk about the '70s, '80s, '90s, what is the history of American troops at the border?

AVINA: I think one way to understand, just, like, the U.S.-Mexico border from a U.S. military perspective is to think about it as a site of one of these forever wars. With the onset of particularly Mexican undocumented migration in the '70s and '80s, you started to see presidents, particularly like Ronald Reagan, start to conflate things like the war on drugs with undocumented migration into an issue of border security. And that's when you start to get increasing militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border. It creates a much more lethal space for people who are trying to cross into the United States.

RASCOE: Does the presence of troops change the flow of migration or change people's decisions to try to cross the border to get asylum, which is legal - does it affect people's decisions?

AVINA: No. So this latest deployment announced by President Biden occurs within, again, this recent context of border militarization. This goes back to the early 1990s with operations like Operation Gatekeeper, where it became policy to militarize trans-border urban spaces with the idea that this would funnel crossers into really dangerous spaces like the Sonoran Desert, with the idea that no migrant in their right mind would ever try to cross through a place as dangerous as the Sonoran Desert. But as we've seen since the mid 1990s, we have anywhere from 7 to 10,000 people who have died trying to make that trek.

RASCOE: And is that what you mean when you say it makes the space more lethal? Because these military troops - they're not, you know, shooting at people on the border, right? It's the idea that they're being pushed into more dangerous areas. Or what do you mean by lethal?

AVINA: Yeah. What I mean is that, yeah, these troops will not be - it opens up the possibility of such type of abuse. But they hopefully will not be involved in something as violent as the shooting of migrants or refugee seekers - refugees or asylum seekers. I'm referring to more of, like, the structure of this border regime that has been created since the 1990s, where by design, the way that the border has been militarized forces border crossers to have to go through increasingly dangerous places like the Sonoran Desert.

RASCOE: You know, there are a lot of high-profile Republicans who've started throwing around the idea of going to war with the drug cartels in a bid to crack down on the drug trade. How do you think that would go over in Mexico? And I mean, is there even an appetite for that in the U.S.?

AVINA: I don't - I hope that there isn't much of an appetite for that beyond the ramblings or the ideas of some prominent politicians. I mean, I think it's really frightening for me as someone with - you know, Mexican American, my parents are from Mexico, I'm a historian of Mexico - to hear these ideas being callously thrown around. Because if you think about the broader history of it, you know, this would make - I don't know. I think the U.S. has invaded Mexico at least a half a dozen times and almost every single time, it's turned into some sort of quagmire for the U.S. military. And it results in the deaths of hundreds of thousands, tens of thousands of Mexican civilians. So it's a really horrific idea that I think - again, it's a political move with very little resonance with reality on the ground. Obviously, that's not how we should be dealing with issues like fentanyl and fentanyl overdoses.

RASCOE: That's Arizona State University professor of Latin American history, Alexander Avina. Thank you so much for being here.

AVINA: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.