The View From a Border Town

Bringing in Guard Raises Concerns Of Militarization

Two men walk in the riverbed of the Rio Grande in Juarez, Mexico, as they wait for an opportunity to cross into the United States.
Two men walk in the riverbed of the Rio Grande in Juarez, Mexico, as they wait for an opportunity to cross into the United States. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
By Sylvia Moreno and Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, May 16, 2006

LAREDO, Tex., May 15 -- For years, Mayor Elizabeth G. Flores has been asking Washington for more help in controlling not only illegal immigration but also drug trafficking here at the nation's second-busiest border crossing. More Border Patrol. Better technology. More federal resources.

But militarize the border with National Guardsmen? That is where she draws the line.

"We have over 300 Border Patrol officers from here serving in Iraq. Why doesn't [President Bush] bring them home to do the job they were trained to do?" said Flores as she walked inside City Hall, which overlooks Texas and U.S. flags out front and the Mexican flag about a quarter-mile away at the border. This seat of government sits in one of "los dos Laredos," the two Laredos, as locals say -- Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, through which 4.4 million pedestrians, 6.3 million vehicles and 1.4 million trucks pass yearly.

"The National Guard is trained to protect us from deadly people," said Flores, a Democrat who has been in office 8 1/2 years. "People crossing over here to work are not our deadly enemy. . . . I think this is all about discrimination and nothing else."

To assuage such concerns over a militarized border, Bush in his nationally televised address Monday stressed that the National Guard troops would play a strictly supporting role, saying, "The Border Patrol will remain in the lead."

But the front-line fears of some local officials reflect only a few of the broader questions about how the new National Guard role will work. Apart from whether the Guard is the right force to use, Guard officials themselves wonder how their forces, stretched by war-zone deployments and homeland defense, will tackle a new mission, what skills it will demand and -- perhaps most critical -- for how long.

Bush said as many as 6,000 Guard troops will be deployed along the border for at least a year to help operate surveillance systems, to analyze intelligence, to install fences, to build patrol roads and to train. Guard units will reduce their numbers as the Border Patrol gains strength, he said, and will not be directly involved in law enforcement.

Defense and Guard officials said the new mission would create challenges for the Guard but should be feasible as long as it remains temporary. "I personally think we can handle it," said Maj. Gen. Roger P. Lempke, president of the Adjutants General Association of the United States. But he said he hoped the mission would last no longer than one year. "As long as we are there and visible, there will be pressure to get the final solution done," he said.

The 440,000-strong National Guard has had more than 280,000 troops federally mobilized for overseas missions and homeland defense since 2001. Nearly 71,000 are currently deployed, with 17,000 of them in Iraq.

In the most likely scenario, Guard troops sent to the border would remain under the command of governors but be paid for with federal funds, officials said.

The additional troops for the border would be drawn from around the nation, defense officials said, although initially most would come from states on or near the border or from underused units. Guard units could also perform their required annual training on the border, a defense official said.

The Guard could also expand the 400-strong force of full-time Guard members now assisting border security personnel in countering drug trafficking and narco-terrorism in the four border states. This force, the Southwest State Joint Counterdrug Task Force, has existed since 1989 but has shrunk from about 1,000 people in 1999 because of a 44 percent cut in its budget, according to Guard figures.

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