Bush plan puts 6,000 Guard troops at border

Stopgap measure pushed in TV talk; resistance voiced

By Jerry Kammer

May 16, 2006

* Guard's role with security seen as limited
* Bush uses a key issue to launch rebound
* Bush's 5-point immigration plan
* Notable National Guard deployments 

WASHINGTON – President Bush yesterday laid out a plan to shut off illegal immigration by dispatching up to 6,000 National Guard troops to the Mexican border, while renewing his call for a guest-worker program and creating a path to potential citizenship for illegal immigrants already here.

In a television address last night, Bush characterized the Guard deployment as a stopgap measure while an equal number of new Border Patrol agents are trained and border security technology is boosted.

“The United States must secure its border,” he said. “This is a basic responsibility of a sovereign nation. It is also an urgent requirement of national security.”

Associated Press
These migrants were detained last month near Arivaca, Ariz. More than 6 million illegal immigrants have been apprehended since President Bush took office.
He met with resistance from some in his own party.

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's address, his first from the Oval Office on a domestic issue, was a cautiously calibrated rhetorical and policy mix. It vowed toughness as it urged compassion, acknowledged the rising anger of the national immigration debate as it urged civility, and celebrated the nation's immigrant heritage while outlining a plan for ending the chaos at the border.

“We will fix the problems created by illegal immigration, and we will deliver a system that is secure, orderly and fair,” Bush said.

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

The speech was pitched to an American audience, but it had strong reverberations south of the border.

While praising some elements of the speech, including Bush's recognition of the economic and social contributions of immigrants, one top Mexican official expressed concern that the measures to toughen security at the border would come before an immigration bill is passed.

File photo
National Guardsmen, shown inspecting vehicles in 2002, have performed duties at the San Ysidro border crossing.
“If the Mexican government has received assurances that the announced measures do not imply the militarization of the border, we should point out our concern that these actions are still not accompanied by sufficient advances in the legislative process that is under way,” said Geronimo Gutierrez, undersecretary for North American affairs in Mexico's Foreign Relations Ministry.

For Mexicans of all economic classes, the image of troops along the border heightens tensions in an already strained relationship.

“It's one thing to put up a wall. But when you're sending troops to the border – even though according to the White House, they're only going to be for operational and administrative purposes – the symbolism is very powerful,” said George Grayson, a Mexico scholar at the College of William & Mary.

The National Guard troops would be sent to the border not to detain illegal immigrants, Bush said, but to support the Border Patrol “by operating surveillance systems, analyzing intelligence, installing fences and vehicle barriers, building patrol roads, and providing training.”

While the president sought to demonstrate a good track record by noting that the Border Patrol has apprehended more than 6 million illegal immigrants during his presidency, he did not acknowledge that the nation's illegal immigrant population has grown by about 3 million during the same period.

The cost: White House officials said President Bush was calling for $1.9 billion included in a supplemental budget bill to be used for his proposals.

What's next: Senate renews debate this week on a comprehensive immigration bill.
Bush – whose popularity has plummeted because of a broad public perception that he has mismanaged not only the border but also the Iraq war and the response to Hurricane Katrina – also sought to reassure Americans that his new proposal would not overtax the National Guard.

Presidential advisers said the troops would rotate in and out in two-or three-week cycles that would correspond to their annual training periods.

“If you assume nobody winds up there more than once, it could be a maximum of 156,000 Guardsmen rotating through the southwest border assignment during this period,” said Frances Fragos Townsend, adviser to the president for homeland security.

The initial commitment of National Guard troops would last for a year; after that, the force would be scaled back and replaced with newly hired Border Patrol agents.

While emphasizing border enforcement in the first half of his speech, Bush also made a pitch for legalizing many of the 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants estimated to be in the United States. He called for a temporary worker program that “would meet the needs of our economy, and ... give honest immigrants a way to provide for their families while respecting the law.”

The president called for a conditional legalization similar to that detailed in legislation the Senate started debating yesterday. It would require illegal immigrants established in the country to pay a fine and back taxes, learn English and remain steadily employed.

On at least one key issue, Bush's proposal departed sharply from the bill before the Senate, which would allow hundreds of thousands of guest workers into the country every year and provide them with a path to citizenship.

“Temporary workers must return to their home country at the conclusion of their stay,” Bush said.

The president also outlined a series of additional steps to reform the nation's immigration policy, including:

Stepped-up federal efforts to train local and state police departments in immigration enforcement measures.

Tamper-proof identity cards for all foreign workers, which would provide employers with a reliable method of verifying their eligibility to work.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger yesterday said in Oceanside that he opposes deploying already overburdened National Guard troops at the border.

Speaking at Del Rio Elementary School, where he was promoting a $37.3 billion public works bond package, Schwarzenegger said many California Guard troops already have served serial stints in Iraq and are needed at home to be prepared to swing into action at a moment's notice in a state prone to natural disasters.

“We have thousands of National Guard in Iraq,” Schwarzenegger said. “So we are already stretching and they are under tremendous pressure the way things are now because we have a shortage of National Guard for the state of California.”

Copley News Service Mexico City Bureau Chief S. Lynne Walker, Union-Tribune staff writer John Marelius and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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