Southwest Divided on Troops for U.S.-Mexico Border

The U.S. Border Patrol and some National Guard troops are already on duty along the U.S.-Mexico border. Some people in the Southwest think the border is already too militarized. Others welcome the effort to seal the border.

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Despite the president's claim that he's not militarizing the border, some people think it's already militarized. Others think it's not militarized enough. And the fact is National Guard troops have been on the border for a while.

NPR's Ted Robbins looks at that presence and what people in the southwest think of the idea of more troops.

TED ROBBINS reporting:

Shortly after 9/11, Arizona National Guard troops began helping U.S. Customs officers search and x-ray cargo trucks at busy ports of entry.

(Soundbite of Customs officers)

Unidentified Man: X-ray is coming on. Stay clear.

ROBBINS: More recently, troops have also been aiding the Border Patrol in other ways, like monitoring video from infrared cameras installed on poles along busy stretches of the border. They look for groups of illegal crossers at night and relay the information to Border Patrol agents. So far, it's only been a couple of hundred troops. But 6,000 troops, even in support roles, is a different story.

Jennifer Allen of the Border Action Network, an immigrant rights group, says more troops will turn border communities into war zones.

Ms. JENNIFER ALLEN (Executive Director, Border Action Network): Their soldiers are trained to look at people as an enemy. And we're talking about six million people that live on the U.S. side of the U.S./Mexico border. We're not enemies. We're people driving to work, going to the grocery store, hanging out with our friends on the front porch.

ROBBINS: Allen thinks conflict is inevitable if thousands of troops come to the border. Chris Simcox thinks troops could prevent conflict, but only if far more of them are stationed on the border. Simcox is co-founder of the Minutemen Civil Defense Project.

Mr. CHRIS SIMCOX (Co-Founder, Minutemen Civil Defense Project Corps): The president's plan is weak. And I think I'm still appalled, that four and half years after September 11th, that people along the border with Mexico still live in terror every day. They live in fear for their lives and their safety, and that we have millions of people breaching that border.

ROBBINS: Simcox says the government needs at least 38,000 additional troops or Border Patrol agents to stop the flow of illegal immigrants. In between those two viewpoints, are those who will command any National Guard troops within their borders: the governors. And governors are politicians.

In Arizona, Governor Janet Napolitano is running for re-election. She is a Democrat who's been squeezed by a Republican legislature to do more to fight illegal immigration. Napolitano says she has long supported stronger border security. She likes the president's plan.

Governor JANET NAPOLITANO (Democrat, Arizona): I think he touched on everything that I've been saying. More security at the border, including manpower; but also technology - UAVs, drones, smart fencing - a whole toolbox of things that can enhance the manpower we use.

ROBBINS: In New Mexico, Governor Bill Richardson says he's disappointed. Richardson, a Democratic governor with a Democratic legislature, points out the president promised more Border Patrol officers six months ago, and they've yet to arrive. In California, Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger calls President Bush's National Guard plan, A Band-Aid solution, not the permanent solution we need. That's the main disagreement in Washington, border enforcement only, versus legalization and guest workers.

With increased presence, the Border Patrol says it is gradually shutting corridors of illegal immigration. Minuteman founder, Chris Simcox, says right now, that's all that matters.

Mr. SIMCOX: We need to force this government to prove to us, that we mean something, when it comes to homeland security. Secure the borders, first. Then we'll start figuring out what to do with the people that are here.

ROBBINS: Illegal immigration has been reduced in urban areas, like San Diego. But over the last decade, despite fences and more than 10,000 Border Patrol agents, there's been no overall slowing of border crossers. It's just become more dangerous and expensive to cross.

Jennifer Allen of the Border Action Network.

Ms. ALLEN: Even in looking at Border Patrol's own goals, of trying to deter immigration numbers, and to shift routes out into more difficult areas, in the hopes that migrants will no longer make that decision to come to the U.S., it's not working.

ROBBINS: Allen says immigration reform must start by making it easier for people to immigrate legally. But politically, President Bush has made the calculation that the only way to get comprehensive immigration reform, is to increase troop presence on the border at the same time.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

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Bush Plans for Border Security, Guest Workers

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Bush, trying to build support for a major overhaul of the nation's tattered immigration laws, said Monday night he would order as many as 6,000 National Guard troops to secure the U.S. border with Mexico and urged Congress to give millions of illegal immigrants a chance at citizenship.

"We do not yet have full control of the border and I am determined to change that," the president said in a 17-minute prime-time address from the Oval Office.

Bush gave strong support to a plan that would give many of the 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States an eventual path to possible citizenship — a move derided by some conservatives in his own Republican Party as amnesty. He rejected that term.

"It is neither wise nor realistic to round up millions of people, many with deep roots in the United States and send them across the border," he said. "There is a rational middle ground between granting an automatic path to citizenship for every illegal immigrant and a program of mass deportation."

The Guard troops would mostly serve two-week stints before rotating out of the assignment, so keeping the force level at 6,000 over the course of a year could require up to 156,000 troops.

Still, Bush insisted, "The United States is not going to militarize the southern border."

The White House wouldn't say how much the deployments would cost, but said the troops would paid for as part of $1.9 billion being requested from Congress to supplement border enforcement this year.

The president timed his speech hours after the Senate began intense debate on an immigration bill that has been getting increasing attention in a year when all House seats and one-third of Senate seats are up for election. The rare televised, prime-time Oval Office address signified the high stakes for Bush, who has been asking for an immigration overhaul since his the 2000 campaign.

House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., indicated Bush may have some trouble getting some conservatives on board with his overall plan.

"While I appreciate the president's willingness to tackle big problems, I have real concerns about moving forward with a guest worker program or a plan to address those currently in the United States illegally until we have adequately addressed our serious border security problems," Blunt said.

Bush said the National Guard troops would fill in temporarily while the nation's Border Patrol force is expanded. He asked Congress to add 6,000 more Border Patrol agents by the end of his presidency and to add 6,700 more beds so illegal immigrants can be detained while waiting for hearings to determine that they can be sent home.

For many years, the government has not had enough detention space to hold illegal immigrants, so they were released into society and most did not return for their court date. "This practice, called catch and release, is unacceptable and we will end it," Bush said

The Border Patrol would remain responsible for catching and detaining illegal immigrants, with National Guard troops providing intelligence gathering, surveillance and other administrative support. Yet the National Guard troops would still be armed and authorized to use force to protect themselves, said Bush homeland security adviser Fran Townsend.

They are to come from the four border states — California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas — but those states' governors may also seek Guard troops from other states. Reaction was mixed among the nation's governors.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said troops might provide short-term relief but he did not believe border protection was an appropriate role for the National Guard. California has thousands of Guard troops in Iraq and might need them in case of earthquakes, floods or other emergencies, he said.

"So if you have 6,000 in Iraq and send another 6,000 to the border, what do we have left?" Schwarzenegger asked.

But another Republican border state governor, Rick Perry of Texas, said he was glad the administration had decided the Guard had a role to play along the border. "We have the ability to multitask," Perry said.

The White House hopes deployments to the border will begin in early June.

Many congressional Republicans said they supported Bush's plan to use National Guard troops at the border. But he ran into criticism from Democrats and some other Republicans.

"Democrats are willing to support any reasonable plan that will secure our borders, including deploying National Guard troops," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. "But Americans don't want a plan that's been cobbled together to win political favor. This cannot turn into another long-term military deployment with no clear plan."

Bush said the nation has more than doubled the size of the Border Patrol during his presidency and has sent home about 6 million people entering the United States illegally. Still, he said, that has not been enough.

"For decades, the United States has not been in complete control of its borders," the president said. "As a result, many who want to work in our economy have been able to sneak across our border, and millions have stayed."

He called for enactment of a guest worker program to allow immigrants to take low-paying jobs, and he said employers must be held to account for hiring illegal immigrants. He said that a tamperproof identification card for workers would "leave employers with no excuse" for violating the law.

And he stressed that those who want to earn citizenship should have to assimilate into society, learn English, pay fines for breaking the law and pay back taxes.

"What I have just described is not amnesty," Bush said. "It is a way for those who have broken the law to pay their debt to society and demonstrate the character that makes a good citizen."

The president's call for tougher border security is part of a broader plan to overhaul a system that he has described as inhumane, with desperate foreigners risking their lives for a chance to earn U.S. wages. The issue raises emotions on all sides, with many Americans and influential conservatives in Congress angry that foreigners are taking jobs and draining resources across the country.

The White House hopes that the tougher security will be enough to get House conservatives to support the work permits and citizenship proposals that they have been opposed to. A bill that passed the House last year ignored those ideas and instead would increase criminal penalties for illegal immigrants and construct 700 miles of fencing.

Bush addressed some of his comments to lawmakers, calling on the Senate to act by the end of the month so a compromise can be reached with the House. "I want to speak directly to Members of the House and the Senate: An immigration reform bill needs to be comprehensive, because all elements of this problem must be addressed together, or none of them will be solved at all."

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

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