The idea that immigration reform cannot happen without improved border security is one of the recurring themes of the current debate on Capitol Hill. Security was what the president had in mind last May when he announced Operation Jump Start — his plan to send up to 6,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border. The administration calls the operation a success. But troops are now being pulled off the border, and a couple of border-state governors fear that border security will be threatened.
For about a year, National Guard troops have been rotating in and out of outposts along the border. Soldiers stayed visible under blue tents right on the border to deter illegal crossers while scanning the landscape, reporting anyone who did cross.
The deterrent worked. The number of crossers apprehended by the Border Patrol since last October is down by about one-third, while drug seizures are up. Drug violence in Mexico has also been worsening, as cartels fight for control.
That's why Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano is upset that the government is beginning to remove soldiers.
"My understanding is they simply won't rotate as many Guard to Arizona," Napolitano said. "My further perception is that that is so that more Guard are available for deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan."
Napolitano and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson wrote President Bush asking him to reconsider. Their argument is that the troops are needed at home more than overseas. But the Bush administration says that the Guard deployment was always meant to last for just a year, with the number of guardsmen dropping as new Border Patrol agents were hired.
Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke says the U.S. now has a little more than 13,500 Border Patrol agents — a 20 percent increase over last year.
"We are aggressively recruiting new men and women into the United States Border Patrol," he said, adding, "[We] expect there will be a 30 percent increase over the next year to get us to 18,000-plus by the end of calendar year 2008."
New fencing and sensors have also gone up in strategic places along the border over the last year, making it even tougher to cross. Some analysts, though, say it's a slowing economy, rather than border security, that has cut down on the number of apprehensions.
Regardless, about half of those who do cross illegally come through Arizona. And there's been a surge in drug-related violence recently just across the Arizona-Mexico border. Napolitano met this week with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar to see if they might remove troops from somewhere else first.
The Texas National Guard has already reassigned hundreds of soldiers along the border. And if Border Patrol recruiting is successful over the next 18 months, most of the Guard will be removed. One to tell whether the new plan is working: Watch whether apprehension numbers continue to go down—and drug seizures continue to go up--after the soldiers leave.