President Obama to send more National Guard troops to U.S.-Mexico border

By Michael D. Shear and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 26, 2010; A01

President Obama will deploy 1,200 National Guard troops and request an extra $500 million to secure the Mexican border, his administration said Tuesday, a move dismissed by Republicans as insufficient to win their cooperation on an overhaul of the nation's immigration system.

By reinforcing the 340 Guard members already monitoring border crossings and analyzing intelligence, the initiative echoes 2006's Operation Jump Start, in which President George W. Bush devoted 6,000 guardsmen to a two-year commitment in support of the Border Patrol.

Then, as now, the troop deployment was fueled by heightened concerns about lawlessness -- then it was illegal immigration, now it is drug traffickers -- as well as political maneuvering in Washington to lay the groundwork for an effort to change immigration policy. But the issue remains bitterly contentious, with increasing pressure on Obama and lawmakers from both Latino supporters and conservative activists.

The March 27 killing of Robert Krentz, a prominent Arizona rancher who had reported drug-smuggling activity on his land, has galvanized political anger toward illegal immigration in that state, although the identity of Krentz's assailant remains under investigation. In Mexico, more than 22,700 people have died in drug-related violence since the battle with cartels was joined in 2006. Although U.S. officials say there has been little spillover violence, Arizona has seen high-profile busts of drug- and human-smuggling safe houses, a rise in extortion-related kidnappings and other disruptions.

White House officials called the Guard troops a "force multiplier" on the U.S. side of the border and said some would engage in counternarcotics missions. In a statement, the Mexican ambassador to the United States praised the "additional US resources to enhance efforts to prevent the illegal flows of weapons and bulk cash into Mexico, which provide organized crime with its firepower and its ability to corrupt."

Clash with McCain

Obama's proposal came after a testy, closed-door meeting with Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill in which the president clashed with his 2008 campaign rival, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), according to people present. The two sparred over creating a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants -- something McCain previously supported -- and a new Arizona law that requires police to identify illegal immigrants.

"I said we needed to secure the border first," McCain recounted after Obama's visit to the GOP luncheon. On the Arizona law, McCain said, "I pointed out that members of his administration who have not read the law have mischaracterized the law."

Obama told the Republican lawmakers during the hour-long session that he was committing greater resources to border security than Bush did, but he stressed that enforcement alone will not solve the country's immigration problems. He urged the lawmakers to join a bipartisan effort to revamp the system, according to White House officials and Senate aides.

But senators appeared underwhelmed. "I don't think that's the point," Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (Maine) said of Obama's boast about outdoing Bush. "The point is, how much do we need to get the job done?"

Quickly upping the ante, Senate Republicans offered an amendment to an emergency war spending bill to provide an additional $2 billion in border funding -- four times the size of Obama's proposal. McCain also introduced an amendment to send 6,000 troops to the border. Lawmakers could consider both proposals this week.

"The violence has crossed the border and escalated to a point where many Arizonans do not feel safe within their own homes or on their own property," McCain and fellow Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl (R) wrote last week in a letter to Obama. "It would be irresponsible not to do everything we can to stop the escalating violence along the border with Mexico."

In a letter to the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, national security adviser James L. Jones and White House terrorism adviser John O. Brennan strongly opposed efforts to force the president's hand on sending more troops to the border, saying that "there is no modern precedent for Congress to direct the president to deploy troops in the manner sought." They called it an "unwarranted interference" with Obama's role as commander in chief.

Timeline moved up

A Senate Democratic aide said the White House had long planned to push a border security package, but its timing was accelerated by Senate GOP plans to force votes this week on a string of amendments to the must-pass war funding bill; among other things, the measures call for more troops and more aerial surveillance drones to be sent to the border.

Criticism of Obama came swiftly from all sides, with supporters of immigration reform saying he is conceding too much to his opponents, and foes of illegal immigration condemning the resources he is committing as paltry.

"I feel like a starving man that's been handed a cracker," said William Gheen, president of Americans for Legal Immigration, which favors increased security on the border.

Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which supports comprehensive immigration changes, said devoting $500 million to the border "is not a long-term solution, and it does nothing to solve the underlying problem of a broken immigration system."

Obama aides said the visit with Republicans was designed to persuade some of them to back an eventual "path to citizenship" for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the country. But the discussion appeared to highlight the political pitfalls for Republicans.

At one point, according to a Republican in attendance, Obama mentioned that in 2006, more than 20 Republicans voted with Democrats to approve a comprehensive immigration bill, noting that many of those Republicans were still in the Senate.

"And many of them aren't," said Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.).

Staff writers Paul Kane and Shailagh Murray contributed to this report.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company