MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
When Central American migrants tried to enter the U.S. from Mexico this past weekend, Border Patrol agents fired tear gas. They said it was in response to being pelted with rocks and bottles. Military police from the Army are also deployed at the border but only in a supportive role. There were reports they could be home in time for Christmas, but that may now be in doubt. Let me bring in NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. And, Tom, remind us just the top-line number here, how many U.S. troops currently on the border right now in these supporting roles supporting DHS.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Mary Louise, it was 5,900 troops. It's dropped a bit down to about 5,600 along with 2,100 National Guard troops.
KELLY: All right, hang on. I'm doing the math. So that's just shy of 8,000 total.
BOWMAN: Yeah, roughly 8,000...
BOWMAN: ...Total - right? - active and Guard. And a deployment of the active troops was expected to end December 15. But what I'm hearing now is a large number of the active troops could stay beyond December 15 and well into January. They're working the details of it now. We expect to have more in the coming days. And Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was asked about all this today, and he just kind of said, hey, we're still working on it with Homeland Security. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JAMES MATTIS: We work daily on it. Right now we have no new requests although we are discussing every day the situation.
BOWMAN: Now although the secretary wouldn't get into it, I'm told by officials that some of these active troops - that 5,600 will remain. Others will go home and be replaced by other troops, right? And then there are some that will just go home and not be replaced. But the bottom line is you're still looking at a sizable active duty force into January.
KELLY: And do we have any more clarity on what exactly they are supposed to be doing and whether quite that sizable a force is necessary to respond to the perceived threat at the border?
BOWMAN: Well, some already have, you know, strung out barbed wire and put up barriers and so forth, and others right now are protecting the Border Patrol folks down there. They're sort of the third line of defense. But a lot of officers I talk with say, listen; you don't need 5,000-plus troops or even half of this, several thousand troops.
KELLY: It also costs a lot of money to keep that...
BOWMAN: Well, 70...
KELLY: ...Many troops there.
BOWMAN: Seventy-two million dollars so far for the active troops. And they're saying, listen; you don't need that many. You could get by with maybe hundreds and so forth. But at this point, we just don't get a sense of what's going to be the final number. Again, it'll be in coming days. Now, Defense Secretary Mattis has defended this. He's saying it's not a political stunt as some have said. And the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Joe Dunford, also has defended this. But clearly a lot of people will be talking about this in January, particularly Democrats when they take over the House.
KELLY: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman - thank you, Tom.
BOWMAN: You're welcome.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.