WASHINGTON – Seeking a quick enforcement boost at the U.S.-Mexico border, President George Bush is set Monday to propose dispatching more National Guard troops to the region and deploying additional Defense Department equipment to thwart illegal immigration.
In a televised address to the nation Monday night, Bush will outline a new border-security effort in hopes of giving momentum to an immigration overhaul the Senate will begin debating earlier in the day.
With many Americans rankled by what they view as inadequate immigration enforcement, administration and congressional officials said stepped-up border security would make it easier for Congress to pass a bill that includes legalization for millions of illegal immigrants. But in an early sign of the controversy the border-security plan could spark, the governors of California and New Mexico expressed concern about troop deployments.
The border-security plan is just one item that Bush will touch on in a rare prime-time speech from the Oval Office. Criticized even by some Republicans for not making more of a case for an immigration overhaul, the president will press for changes that pair increased enforcement with a temporary-worker program that could provide a pathway to citizenship for many of the nation’s 11 million-plus illegal immigrants.
“This is crunch time,” said White House press secretary Tony Snow. “The president does want comprehensive immigration reform addressed.”
Details of the border enforcement plan were still being cobbled together Friday evening, with the White House swapping various proposals with the Defense and Homeland Security departments.
“We are looking at a range of options,” said a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The question is how best to deploy assets to have the most immediate impact.”
• Using federal funds to pay for Southwest governors to deploy National Guard troops.
• Requiring National Guard units from around the U.S. to conduct their training near the border.
• Hiring private contractors to assist the Border Patrol in support roles.
What seemed clear is that the Defense Department would be directed to use some of its assets – including aircraft, helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles and sophisticated monitoring devices – to enhance surveillance along the nearly 2,000-mile border.
The Defense Department and Homeland Security Department refused to discuss the plan. “I have no detail on anything right now,” said a Pentagon spokeswoman, Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke.
The senior administration official stressed that active-duty troops would not be deployed to the border and that the National Guard units probably would be used in support roles for the Border Patrol. They could provide surveillance, transportation and construction of infrastructure such as berms, fencing and other border barriers, he said.
Though some officials on and off Capitol Hill speculated that the National Guard contingent could reach 10,000, the administration official said troop strength hadn’t been decided.
The White House said Bush would travel to the Southwest border Thursday to discuss his border security plan. While the White House wouldn’t specify the location, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano’s chief of staff, Dennis Burke, said there were indications Mr. Bush would visit Yuma, Ariz.
In a sign of the border security plan’s still-fluid status, the governors’ offices in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico said they remained unaware of the specifics. They also didn’t have details on the use of the National Guard, which is under the control of governors in most cases.
Sensitivities surrounding the use of troops for law enforcement as well as jurisdictional issues between the federal and state governments over control of the National Guard have complicated the discussions.
“We would welcome more federal resources along the border and the administration’s efforts to step up their presence along there,” said Rachael Novier, a spokeswoman for Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Perry, who has long chafed at the federal response, hasn’t waited for Washington to act. Last year, he dispatched state funds and resources to help Texas border sheriff’s departments dealing with illegal immigration and rising violence fueled by drug traffickers.
Napolitano, the Arizona governor, has been pressing the president and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld since last December to provide federal funds for deployment of the National Guard for immigration help in her state, which is the key illegal crossing point. About 170 National Guard troops, funded by the federal government, already do drug interdiction missions in Arizona.
“They’ve been slowly, leisurely responding to us with a lot of bureaucratic hoops, and all of a sudden there was an epiphany this week,” said Burke, her chief of staff.
In New Mexico, where 68 National Guard troops already are working near the border, Gov. Bill Richardson complained that the border-state governors weren’t consulted about the Bush plan.
“This would dramatically impact our states,” he said, adding that the deployment could hinder the National Guard’s ability to respond to emergencies and natural disasters.
He and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger also expressed concern that a new mission could further tire troops stretched by deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Others welcomed news of the border-security plan, including Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who has been pushing for greater use at the border of Defense Department technologies such as ground sensors and surveillance equipment.
“The truth is, we must use all available federal assets to secure our borders,” the Republican senator said.
But Rep. Silvestre Reyes, a retired Border Patrol sector chief, dismissed the border security plan as window dressing to pass the immigration bill.
“For me, it’s just cheap political theater that makes people think that those who vote for this legislation are tough on illegal immigration,” said Reyes, D-Texas.
He and another senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Texas, wrote Mr. Bush on Friday, asking him to carefully consider whether “it is in the best interest of our nation to add yet another mission to the agenda of our overstretched military.”
They also questioned the rules of engagement under which the military would operate.
It was unclear how Mexico, which has been harshly critical of a tough border security bill passed by the House, would react to the idea of more National Guard troops on the border.
Mexican President Vicente Fox was traveling in Europe on Friday and was not available for comment, an official said.