By Idrees Ali
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan will make his second trip to the U.S.-Mexico border on Saturday as the Pentagon looks to develop a longer-term plan to support President Donald Trump’s immigration policies.
Two days after the White House announced Trump’s intention to nominate the former Boeing Co executive to be defence secretary, Shanahan is slated to travel to McAllen, Texas, to meet with officials on the border and visit a migrant processing facility and Border Patrol station.
He will travel with another acting secretary, Kevin McAleenan, who leads the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) after a shake-up instigated by Trump, who is increasingly frustrated by the rising tide of migrants despite his hard-line immigration policies.
On Friday, the Pentagon said Shanahan approved the transfer of $1.5 billion to build more than 80 miles (130 km) of barriers on the border with Mexico, part of a patchwork project as Trump has failed to secure funding from Congress for a complete border wall.
Trump has been keen to have the U.S. military play a larger role on the U.S.-Mexico border and, despite some criticism from lawmakers, Pentagon officials say they are looking to create a long-term plan for assistance.
“(It is about) getting us out of this à la carte tasking where, ‘Hey, we need 50 guys to do this, 50 guys to do that’,” a senior defence official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Pentagon has tapped a two-star Army general to work with DHS to look at what the military requirements will be in the future.
“What we’re hopeful to do is have, in fairly short order for the secretary of Homeland Security, a much more predictable, comprehensive plan for the next couple of years,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford said during a hearing earlier this week.
There are currently about 5,000 U.S. service members on the border.
“Substantively and strategically it is pretty clear that the priority, at least according to the Pentagon strategy, is China and Russia,” said Mara Karlin, a former Pentagon official now with the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington.
“And yet politically, given the president’s profound interest in all things border and immigration, that has obviously won out as the drag on Shanahan’s time,” Karlin added.
The domestic trip comes as tensions with Iran and North Korea have flared. Earlier this week, the Pentagon said it was sending a carrier strike group and bombers to the Middle East after U.S. intelligence signalled possible preparations by Tehran to stage attacks against U.S. forces or interests.
North Korea fired multiple missiles on Thursday, the second such test in less than a week.
Shanahan has been acting defence secretary since January, the longest in Pentagon history. While he is expected to be confirmed by the Senate, he is likely to face a tough confirmation process over the border, his ties to Boeing after three decades there and his limited foreign policy experience.
The decision to transfer the $1.5 billion for border funding came on top of a March transfer of $1 billion in military money to fund the wall, which Democratic lawmakers criticized sharply.
All 10 Democrats on Senate appropriations subcommittees that handle defence, veterans affairs and related spending, wrote to Shanahan to oppose the decision.
“Shanahan may be the least qualified nominee for secretary of defence that the Senate Armed Services Committee has considered during my time in the Senate,” Senator Richard Blumenthal, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said on Thursday.
(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Mary Milliken and Jonathan Oatis)