Border fence in Arizona

A razor-wire-covered border wall separates Nogalas, Mexico, at right, and Nogales, Ariz. at dusk on March 2. | AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

Immigration

The idea of sending an emergency response team to the border is in an exploratory phase.

The Trump administration may send a volunteer emergency response team to assist with security and humanitarian efforts at the U.S.-Mexico border, according to four current and former officials briefed on the discussions.

With border arrest numbers on the rise, the Trump administration has been “casting about” for ways to devote additional resources to stem the flow of migrants, according to a DHS official familiar with the discussions.

Story Continued Below

“My question is, do they actually need more people on the border or are they just trying to make a statement here?’” asked Craig Fugate, who was FEMA administrator during the Obama administration.

A second DHS official similarly questioned the administration’s motives for considering the force. It “makes eminent sense for a hurricane,” this person said, but not for the border. “All of this is just to buttress the administration’s claim that there’s an emergency,” the official said.

To date, the Trump administration has deployed to the southern border hundreds of additional agents from its 19,443-strong Border Patrol force. It’s also sent 6000 active-duty and National Guard troops. Yet even though border crossings remain well below their peak levels during the 1990s and early 2000s, President Donald Trump judges efforts to stem illegal immigration to be insufficient.

The president’s February declaration that illegal border crossings were a national emergency necessitating the spending of $6.7 billion unapproved by Congress suffered a blow Thursday when the Senate voted, 59-41, to block the declaration. Twelve Republicans voted with Democrats against the president.

“I sort of took this as, ‘Hey, here’s this new idea,” the first DHS official said of the volunteer force under consideration. “The lawyers are trying to figure out whether it’s possible at all.”

The Homeland Security Department maintains a “Surge Capacity Force” intended to “augment the federal response to a catastrophic disaster,” according to a webpage that details its operations. The unit is composed of volunteers, from DHS and other federal agencies, who are deployed in response to hurricanes and wildfires.

The idea of sending an emergency response team to the border is in an exploratory phase, according to the first DHS official. Whether the administration would use its existing team or create a new unit remains unclear, the official said.

The number of arrests at the southwest border — a metric used to determine illegal crossings — rose in February to its highest level since March 2009. Still, arrests remain far below the levels of the late 1980s, 1990s and 2000s.

The Trump administration seeks to hire 26,370 Border Patrol agents as part of its enforcement crackdown, but it remains nearly 7,000 agents short of that total, according to a Government Accountability Office report released earlier this month.

The existing Surge Capacity Force has been deployed in response to hurricanes and wildfires when the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been overwhelmed, but never before to assist with border security efforts. Established in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the team was first activated to respond to Hurricane Sandy in 2012. DHS deployed it again in 2017 to assist with hurricane recovery efforts and with wildfires in California, according to the program’s webpage. The volunteers need approval from their federal supervisors, and continue to receive pay during deployments. FEMA, however, reimburses travel expenses and overtime.

An administration official told POLITICO that the existing surge force could not be used for a border security mission because it draws on disaster relief funds. In addition, the program uses personnel trained in FEMA procedures, which would be less applicable in the context of border security.

“I think what they would seek to do is build a team of people from around the department that have skill sets in that arena,” the official said. “It would have to be different people and designed for a different purpose.”

DHS did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, said he had not heard about a volunteer surge effort. But he said that volunteers would be more likely to do logistical work, and that it was unlikely Immigration and Customs officers could be used at the border.

“They’re not about to give us ICE agents to start enforcing border laws, because they’re already stretched thin as it is,” he said.