By Alan Devall and Mike Blake
SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - The commander of U.S. forces deployed in San Diego to fortify the southern border said he does not view the migrants from a Central American caravan amassing in Mexico as "enemies" after President Donald Trump described them as an "invasion."
"I don't consider them a military enemy, nor does the United States military doing this job. They're simply migrants in a caravan moving towards the United States to seek a better way of life and asylum," Army Captain Guster Cunningham III told Reuters on Thursday.
"The military is not classifying them as the enemy in any way, shape or form," he said.
Trump's politically charged decision to send troops to the border with Mexico came ahead of U.S. congressional elections last week. He was seeking to strengthen border security as part of a crackdown on illegal immigration.
The number of U.S. troops at the border with Mexico may have peaked at about 5,800, the U.S. commander of the mission told Reuters, noting he would start looking next week at whether to begin sending forces home or perhaps shifting some to new border positions.
The Pentagon says there are no plans for U.S. forces to interact with migrants and that they had been carrying out support tasks for U.S. Customs and Border (CBP), such as stringing up concertina wire and building temporary housing for themselves and CBP personnel.
"As far as us being confronted with migrants, the possibility still remains zero because that's not our job. Our job again is to fortify the fence and enable CBP to do their enforcement job," Cunningham said.
Up to 1,000 migrants linked to the caravans have arrived in the Mexican border city of Tijuana in recent days, with a similar number expected to arrive in the next few days. Thousands more could then arrive in border towns as the bulk of the caravans arrive.
Many of the migrants in the caravans, which include women and children, say they are fleeing gang violence and poverty. However. Trump suggested, without providing proof, the caravans could be hiding extremists.
Asked if "terrorists" might be mixed in with the migrants Cunningham III said: "Of course that possibility always exists."
"The likelihood of us coming into contact with any militants at this time based upon what is from higher, Defense Secretary (Jim) Mattis, is that we will not come in contact with any militants," he said.
(Writing by Anthony Esposito; Editing by Paul Tait)