US President Donald Trump says the number of military troops deployed to the US-Mexican border could reach 15,000 – roughly double the number the Pentagon said it currently plans for a mission whose dimensions are shifting daily.
The Pentagon says “more than 7,000” troops were being sent to the southwest border to support the Customs and Border Protection agents.
Officials said that number could reach a maximum of about 8,000 under present plans.
The troop numbers have been changing at a dizzying pace, with Mr Trump drawing a hard line on immigration in the lead-up to the midterm elections.
Last week officials were indicating that about 800 to 1,000 might be sent. On Monday, officials announced that about 5,200 were being deployed.
The next day, the Air Force general running the operation said more than the initially announced total were going, and he pointedly rejected a news report that it could reach 14,000, saying that was “not consistent with what’s actually being planned”.
General Terrence O’Shaughnessy, the commander of US Northern Command, told reporters the number would exceed the initial contingent of 5,200, but he offered no estimate of the eventual total.
Just 24 hours later, Mr Trump thrust new uncertainty into the picture, catching the Pentagon by surprise.
With his eyes squarely on Tuesday’s contests, Mr Trump has rushed a series of immigration declarations, promises and actions as he tries to mobilise supporters to retain Republican control of Congress.
“As far as the caravan is concerned, our military is out,” Mr Trump said.
“We have about 5,800. We’ll go up to anywhere between 10,000 and 15,000 military personnel on top of Border Patrol, ICE and everybody else at the border.”
Later on Wednesday, Mr Trump told ABC News: “We have to have a wall of people.”
Mr Trump rejected the idea he was “fearmongering” or using the issue for political purposes, but his escalating rhetoric in the waning days of the campaign season calls that denial into question.
Mr Trump has railed against illegal immigration, including several caravans of migrants from Central America slowly moving on foot toward the US border.
The caravan of an estimated 4,000 people is still nearly 1,000 miles from the border. Several smaller groups, estimated at a combined 1,200 people, are further away.
Mr Trump insisted the media is underestimating the caravans.
“You have caravans coming up that look a lot larger than it’s reported actually. I’m pretty good at estimating crowd size. And I’ll tell you they look a lot bigger than people would think,” he told ABC.
He has also promised to end so-called catch-and-release policies by erecting tent cities to hold those crossing illegally.
And this week he is asserting he could act by executive order to unilaterally end birthright citizenship for the children of non-US citizens.
Mr Trump’s comments left some in the Pentagon scratching their heads.
Officials said they had no plans to deploy as many as 15,000 troops. The number conceivably could reach 10,000, counting the 2,100 National Guard soldiers who have been operating along the border for months as part of a separate but related mission.
The number of active-duty troops tapped for deployment stood at 7,000 as of Wednesday but could reach 8,000.
A deployment of 15,000 would bring the military commitment on the border to roughly the same level as in war-torn Afghanistan.
And it would more than double the number of people thought to be in the caravans.