WASHINGTON — The Trump administration’s immigration enforcement fiasco took a new turn as lawmakers pushed back on a decision to send military lawyers to help prosecute misdemeanor immigration cases.
Two House Democrats who served as judge advocates general are urging Attorney General Jeff Sessions to withdraw his request for JAGs at the U.S.-Mexico border, and three senators — including one armed services Republican — are asking Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to reconsider his decision to comply with the request.
Reps. Ted Lieu of California and Anthony Brown of Maryland wrote Sessions to argue that stretching an already overtaxed JAG Corps would shortchange their primary mission to troops, military families and national security overall. They called the move “unwise, inefficient” and a detriment to national security.
“Instead of creating new problems for our military, you should focus on undoing the manufactured crisis you have caused,” Lieu and Brown wrote. “Simply reverse the policy change you announced earlier this year. Do not take JAGs away from their critical military missions.”
Both letters were sent Thursday, following an NBC report that 21 military lawyers are being sent to border states to help prosecute a backlog of immigration cases. They are reportedly answering the Justice Department’s urgent request and would receive preparatory training on immigration law while DoJ adds permanent federal prosecutors.
The news came amid a furor over the Trump administration’s plan to prosecute each person caught illegally crossing the border. The president reversed course Wednesday with an executive order to end the policy of separating children and parents who crossed the border together.
Since that order, which directed Mattis to “take all legally available measures to provide to the [DHS Secretary,] upon request, any existing facilities available for the housing and care of alien families,” officials confirmed the Defense Department may house up to 20,000 unaccompanied migrant children on military installations.
Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., have since written to Mattis to argue he would leave active duty posts empty, requiring calling reservists for the mission — despite the DoD’s own recent admission that JAG Corps caseloads are full.
They cited Mattis’s testimony earlier this year — when asked about providing special victims’ counsels to support survivors of domestic violence and child abuse — that expanding the duties of the JAG Corps without adding more personnel would risk “a significant reduction in the quality of services currently provided.”
“Clearly, the military needs more, not fewer, lawyers available for its critical military justice practice. Instead, we have now learned the services will be diverting these valuable resources to support a non-military mission,” they wrote.
“Pulling twenty-one trial counsel from military courtrooms to prosecute immigration cases is an inappropriate misapplication of military personnel. We urge you to maintain these resources within the military justice system.”
In the two letters, the lawmakers expressed concerns the litigators would be used for a non-military mission they’re not trained for.
Though JAGs serve as special federal prosecutors in districts with military installations and on cases with a clear military connections, “these twenty-one JAGs are being directed to practice wholly outside of their training, within the vast and complex immigration arena,” the letter noted.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.