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.
"We could very quickly ramp up and double the effort if the funding was available," said a National Guard counter-drug official at the National Guard Bureau who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the new policy was not finalized. "You are using the same techniques to find illegal drug traffickers or to find a person."
The Counterdrug Task Force operates four RC-26 aircraft and 15 to 20 OH-58 helicopters equipped with infrared radars and high-powered lights that can photograph and track movements of vehicles and people crossing the border.
The task force also uses military ground sensors to detect people coming over the border and gamma ray imagers to inspect vehicles and cargo. Guard engineers have helped build roads and fences. The task force also assists with intelligence analysis such as reviewing license plates and phone call records, tracks money laundering, and provides Spanish-speaking military linguists who translate recordings and documents.
About 10,000 Border Patrol agents are deployed along the U.S.-Mexico border, and patrol hours climbed about 167 percent between 1997 and 2005. But there is no clear link between staffing and arrests, or between arrests and a reduction in the flow of illegal immigration, analysts say.
Estimates of how many agents are needed vary. In 1999, one estimate given the House projected that 16,000 were needed on the southern border. In 2004, Congress authorized the hiring of 10,000 more and is slowly funding them.
But in Laredo, although some officials agreed on the need for more border forces, they voiced fear that military deployment could send the wrong message.
"It's showing your teeth before you reach out your hand," said the president of Texas A&M International University here, Ray Keck. Keck said federal officials do not understand the interdependence of U.S. border cities and their Mexican counterparts, noting that 10 percent of his university's students are Mexican nationals.
The Mexican consul in Laredo, Daniel Hernandez Joseph, said he welcomed proposals to increase border security. But he said that deploying the National Guard would "not be seen as a friendly act."
"Do they understand that every Hispanic is not illegal?" Hernandez said of the National Guard. "The Border Patrol has that training."
Tyson reported from Washington. Staff writer Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.