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Acting U.S. defense chief in Texas as Pentagon eyes longer-term support on Mexico border

By Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan made 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.

Shanahan traveled to McAllen, Texas, to meet with officials on the border and visit a migrant processing facility and Border Patrol station, two days after the White House announced Trump’s intention to nominate the former Boeing Co executive as defense secretary.

He was accompanied by another acting secretary, Kevin McAleenan, who leads the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) after a shake-up instigated by Trump, whose hard-line immigration policies have not stemmed a rising tide of migrants.

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 eager 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.

Military assistance would not continue “indefinitely. It is a finite period of time,” Shanahan told a small group of reporters traveling with him to the border. The assistance would be longer than months, he added, and that he was working to accelerate support for DHS.

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. Shanahan said he expected a plan from the general in the next few weeks.

“(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 defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The defense official said the planning was looking at what the military could provide for at least two years, though that timeline could change. The Pentagon received another request recently from DHS to provide housing for detained migrants, something the military was reviewing, the official added.

“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 4,500 U.S. service members on the border, authorized to be there until the end of September.

DEMOCRAT CRITICISM

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 defense, veterans affairs and related spending wrote to Shanahan to oppose the decision.

Lawmakers have recently hinted they may respond by putting new restrictions on the Pentagon’s authority to move money around, as it has done in the past to deal with natural disasters. Shanahan said he understood that lawmakers could take that authority away from the Pentagon in the future but was unsure how to ease concerns.

“I don’t have a good answer for how we’re going to balance it, it is a predicament,” Shanahan said.

The Pentagon is also weighing which projects from the military construction budget will be affected to help pay up to $3.6 billion toward the wall and whether there is a military need for it.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Mary Milliken, Jonathan Oatis and Steve Orlofsky)

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