WASHINGTON (AP) -- About 550 U.S. active duty troops have begun arriving along the U.S.-Mexico border in the first group of military support ahead of an expected increase of migrants, U.S. defense officials said Tuesday, as communities and migrants prepare for the end of COVID-related immigration restrictions.
The movement of troops is part of efforts to beef up security along the southern border amid concerns about a potential increase in migrants trying to enter the U.S. starting Friday, after the restrictions expire.
The forces will mainly be used to help monitor and watch the border, or do data entry and support, and are "not there in any way to be interacting with migrants," said Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, Pentagon press secretary. The goal is to free up U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel to do law enforcement activities.
"They needed assistance performing some of those back shop type requirements so that they can focus on the law enforcement aspect of this," Ryder said.
At least some of the active duty troops will be used near El Paso, Texas, he said, while adding that CBP will decide where forces will go.
More than 900 additional soldiers, Marines and airmen will follow around the end of May.
U.S. and international law give migrants the right to seek asylum. However, the U.S. has used Title 42 of a public health law to expel migrants with no chance at asylum 2.8 million times since March 2020 on the grounds of preventing the spread of COVID-19.
The Biden administration has said that it is ready to deal with whatever happens after Title 42's use ends, although it has also repeatedly criticized Congress for not making changes to the country's immigration system.
"We believe we have a robust process to deal with what is going to occur after Title 42 lifts. Again, we're using the tools that are available to us because Congress refuses to do their job as it relates to the border," White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday.
Roughly 2,500 National Guard members are already spread across all sectors of the border, providing an array of support to CBP, including monitoring, detection and air transportation. Separately, Texas National Guard troops are also working along the border under state authority.
Even with the COVID-19 asylum restrictions still in place, the administration has seen record numbers of people crossing the border.
President Joe Biden has responded by cracking down on those who cross illegally and by creating new pathways meant to offer alternatives to a dangerous and often deadly journey.
Some migrants have been spurred by false information from smugglers or widespread rumors about what the Title 42 changes will mean for their chances of being able to remain in the U.S.
"It's a very complicated legal system and it's becoming increasingly difficult to communicate the realities of our clients," Daniel Berlin, of the International Rescue Committee, said. "While we try to communicate the most accurate and up to date information that we have, smugglers and traffickers and other bad actors are communicating false information."
In the Mexican border city of Reynosa, across from McAllen, Texas, groups handed out fliers Tuesday that explained in English and Haitian Creole how to register for the CBP One app that the U.S. has been using to allow migrants to schedule an appointment to try to gain admittance to the U.S.
Standing in Reynosa's central square Tuesday, Phanord Renel of Haiti said he would not risk deportation to cross. "We don't want to go back there (Haiti) because the situation is very complicated there," he said. "If we can't cross, we have to put up with it here, maybe the government will do something for us, but cross illegally --- no."
Agents in the Border Patrol's relatively quiet El Centro, California, sector stopped about 260 migrants a day over a four or five day period through Sunday, up from about 90 a day the previous week, said Gregory Bovino, the sector chief. On Monday, agents found migrants from 22 countries.
It's unclear what's driving the increase other than anticipation that pandemic restrictions are about to end, Bovino said.
"We see these surges whenever there's a major event or a news story," he said. "We don't have a crystal ball, so I can't say there's going to be a massive surge on Friday."
Effects have also been felt far from the southern border. In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot issued an emergency declaration in response to a tenfold increase in the number of asylum-seekers arriving in the city in need of temporary shelter and other help.
Chicago officials have warned for several weeks that its shelters can't accommodate the larger number of migrants arriving daily since late April. Migrants have been sheltering inside city police stations or airports because city-run shelters are full.
Also Tuesday, Mexican President Andrs Manuel Lpez Obrador and President Joe Biden spoke by telephone. Since Mexico shares a roughly 2,000-mile (3,200-kilometer) border with the United States, it's key to the success of any plans by the United States to control immigration at the southern border.
In a statement the White House said the two talked about "the urgency of effectively reducing crowding in northern Mexico" as well as other issues.