By Spencer S. Hsu and Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 17, 2006
The commander of the National Guard pledged yesterday that 6,000 troops will be trained and ready to carry out President Bush's order to help secure the U.S.-Mexico border starting next month, but the narrowness of their mission and long-standing doubts about U.S. enforcement efforts shadowed Bush's call to "gain full control of the border."
Even as administration officials provided more detail on the Guard's role along the southern border, advocates on both sides of the debate, especially anti-immigration conservatives in Bush's own party, kept up their attacks on his multitiered drive for tougher enforcement at the borders and inside the United States, a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already here, and a temporary-worker program.
Speaking to reporters, military and homeland security officials played down the scope of the deployment and hedged when gauging its overall impact on the 2,000-mile-long border. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff stressed that beefed-up enforcement at the border will also require border barriers, new technology and the establishment of a guest-worker program to regulate the flow of immigrants seeking jobs.
"The fact of the matter is if you have people who are willing to try eight, 10, 12 times" to cross the border, Chertoff said, a legal guest-worker program would "bleed off a lot of that pressure . . . on the Border Patrol."
Without a guest-worker program, Chertoff has said, "it's going to be extraordinarily difficult to ask our Border Patrol agents . . . to stem the tide that is driven by a huge economic engine of employers looking for people to do work that won't be done by Americans."
The deployment of up to 6,000 troops is expected to begin in June and could extend into a second year with a smaller force of about 3,000, said Paul McHale, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense. They will be replaced as more Border Patrol officers are hired and trained.
McHale said the military force will consist mainly of National Guard troops from California, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico who will rotate to the border for three-week tours in lieu of their annual 15-day field training.
Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said the decision to handle the mission with many short rotations is designed to minimize the stress on the Guard's citizen soldiers, already taxed by unprecedented war deployments.
"We're talking about people that have jobs, people that have families. And we're trying to balance that," Blum said.
"I don't want to say it's business as usual," he added, "but it's usual business done at a little bit more expanded pace," describing a nearly 20-year-old Guard role in counternarcotics activities .
The National Guard will not be involved in patrolling the border and apprehending and detaining illegal immigrants. Mexico said yesterday that it will file lawsuits in U.S. courts if troops directly engage in detaining migrants.
Blum also stressed that the expanded border mission will not come at the expense of fighting terrorism abroad or providing disaster relief, other missions that have strained the Guard.
"There are three glass balls we have to manage or juggle . . . we can certainly do what is being asked by our commander in chief with about 2 percent of my force structure," he said.
McHale said yesterday that the Guard's core missions will include using helicopters and ground sensors to detect illegal border crossing, building barriers and roads, and medical and logistics support. Active-duty forces may be called for certain "niche capabilities," as well as civilian contractors. The military will seek reimbursement for its costs, he said.
About 90 percent of the 12,000-member U.S. Border Patrol work on the southern border, twice as many as a decade ago. But the buildup has only driven up the cost of each arrest and reduced the chances that an illegal immigrant is caught, researchers said, while the number of those living inside the United States doubled to nearly 12 million.
T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, the agents union, said: "It's going to have very little effect. . . . This is a smoke screen, a diversion."
"The issue is whether the National Guard is there for anything but show," said Frank D. Bean, co-director of the Center for Research on Immigration, Population and Public Policy at the University of California at Irvine.
Activists who take a harder line toward illegal immigration also said that the border security measures issued by the administration do little more than shift the focus away from the issue of removing the millions of illegal immigrants living in the United States. At the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, which calls for stronger enforcement, Executive Director Mark Krikorian called Bush's speech "inspired by Mary Poppins -- a spoonful of border enforcement makes the amnesty go down."
He called use of National Guard troops "about number 17 on the list" of things to do, after targeting immigrant fugitives and U.S. companies that use illegal labor.
"It was insulting, really," Krikorian said. "He must think people who oppose amnesty are a bunch of troglodytes that can be induced by cosmetic measures."
But the president's proposal was deemed too tough by activists who helped organize recent demonstrations on behalf of illegal immigrants. Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change, said Bush pandered to right-wing supporters who want to close the border, while activists planned a national lobbying effort today to push for a broader legalization plan.
"The message that President Bush is sending to Mexico and the countries in Central America is that Mexico is a threat to the national security of the U.S., and they need to be dealt with militarily, and migrants are seen as enemies," said Angela Sanbrano, executive director of the Central American Resource Center in Los Angeles. "It's just bad foreign policy."
Staff writers Ann Scott Tyson and Krissah Williams contributed to this report.