By Randal C. Archibold
New York Times
LOS ANGELES — President Barack Obama will send up to 1,200 National Guard troops to the Southwest border and seek increased spending on law enforcement there to combat drug smuggling after demands from Republican and Democratic lawmakers that border security be tightened.
The decision was disclosed by a Democratic lawmaker and confirmed by administration officials after Obama met Tuesday with Republican senators, several of whom have demanded that troops be placed at the border. But the move also reflected political pressure in the president's own party with midterm election campaigns under way and what is expected to be a tumultuous debate on overhauling immigration law coming up on Capitol Hill.
The issue has pushed Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security, into something of a corner. As governor of Arizona, she demanded that Guard troops be put on the border. But since joining the Obama administration, she has remained noncommittal about the idea, saying that other efforts by Obama had improved border security.
The troops will be stationed in the four border states for a year White House officials said. It is not certain when they will arrive, the officials said.
The troops will join a few hundred members of the Guard already assigned there to help the police hunt drug smugglers. The additional troops will provide support to law enforcement officers by helping observe and monitor traffic between official bordercrossings. They also will help analyze trafficking patterns in the hope of intercepting illegal drug shipments.
Initial word of the deployment came not in a formal announcement from the White House — indeed, it was left to administration officials speaking on the condition of anonymity to fill in some details — but from a Democratic member of the House from southern Arizona who is running in what is expected to be a competitive race for re-election.
"The White House is doing the right thing," the congresswoman, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, said in a statement announcing the decision. "Arizonans know that more boots on the ground means a safer and more secure border. Washington heard our message."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., whose opponent in a coming primary has pounded him on the immigration, said Tuesday that he welcomed Obama's move but that it was "simply not enough."
McCain called for the introduction of 6,000 National Guard troops to police the Southwestern border, with 3,000 for Arizona alone. In a letter to Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, two Obama aides said that proposal infringed on his role as commander in chief and overlooked gains in border security
Calls for sending the Guard to the border grew after the shooting death of a rancher in southern Arizona on March 27 that the police suspect was carried out by someone involved in smuggling. Advocates of the state law in Arizona that gives the police a greater role in immigration enforcement played up what they described as a failure to secure the border as a reason to pass the law.
Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona, a Republican who running for a full term, has requested Guard troops at the border but decided not to use her authority to do it herself, citing the state's tattered finances. The governors of New Mexico and Texas also pleaded for troops.
From 2006 to 2008, President George W. Bush made a larger deployment of Guard troops under a program called "Operation Jump Start." At its peak, 6,000 Guard troops at the border helped build roads and fences in addition to backing up law enforcement officers.
Those Guard troops contributed to the arrest of more than 162,000 illegal immigrants, the rescue of 100 people stranded in the desert and the seizure of $69,000 in cash and 305,000 pounds of illicit drugs.
Then as now, the soldiers will not directly make arrests of border crossers and smugglers, something they are not trained to do.
Democrats and Republicans who agreed with the move rushed to take credit for it, including Brewer, who said her signing of the new Arizona law had pushed the administration.
"I am pleased that President Obama has now, apparently, agreed that our nation must secure the border to address rampant border violence and illegal immigration without other pre-conditions, such as passage of 'comprehensive immigration reform,' '' she said.
Terry Goddard, the Arizona attorney general and a Democrat running for governor, released a statement with the headline, "Goddard Secures Administration Commitment for $500 million for National Guard, Border Security." In an interview, Goddard said, "I think it is a good indication that the administration is taking us seriously."
But some Democrats were skeptical.
Rep. Harry Mitchell of Arizona, a Democrat facing re-election in a Republican-leaning district, saidit was "going to take much more to secure the border." He proposed a minimum of 3,000 troops.