Border Plan Reignites an Old Debate

President Bush's plan to send 6,000 National Guard troops to the Southern border has rekindled debate in states about the role of the Guard, particularly on whether the new assignment will strain a force drained by extensive deployments.

Bush proposed in an Oval Office speech May 15 to send as many as 156,000 citizen soldiers from state Guard units, in two-to-three week shifts over the next two years, to supplement federal Border Patrol agents along the nearly 2,000-mile border from California to Texas.

The troops dispatched to battle illegal immigration would be used in a support role, such as reconnaissance or road building, and would be controlled by the governors of Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas. The other 46 states would not have to send guardsmen, and the border states would not have to accept the extra help. The federal government would pay for the state units that do deploy.

Despite the leeway, some governors said Bush moved on the proposal without their input and that the plan overextends a force stretched thin by extensive deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. With hurricane season starting June 1 — about the time the new mission is scheduled to begin — governors said they also are worried about having enough resources to handle natural disasters, particularly on the scale of Hurricane Katrina.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) of California has been among the governors who have questioned the National Guard plan. He said he supports the federal government taking the lead in enforcement of immigration laws, but at a press conference Monday, he pointed to two problems.

"One of them is that we have thousands of National Guards in Iraq, so we are already stretching," he said. And two, "We are a state that is by nature a state that always has some kind of a natural disaster."

Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) voiced similar concerns Monday. "If you take that number of National Guard troops out of home commitments at a time where we're looking for tornadoes and hurricanes and other natural disasters, I really think that leaves states in a much more compromised situation," she told the Lawrence Journal-World.

Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, four out of five guardsmen have been sent overseas in the largest deployment of the National Guard since World War II. Combined with domestic assignments, such as the mobilization of 50,000 guardsmen after Hurricane Katrina last summer, the frequent deployments have taken their toll.

Of key concern is equipment. While fewer Guard troops are being sent overseas than earlier in the war, their rifles, radios, vehicles and other equipment aren't returning home. Last year, Guard units not on active duty had only about 34 percent of their equipment. That number has since dropped to about a quarter, said Jack Harrison, spokesman for the National Guard Bureau, the federal agency that administers guard activities.

Governors have raised the issue before. In February, all 50 governors called on Bush to re-equip the National Guard. Congress responded by allocating $900 million to refurbish depleted state armories. But Maj. Gen. Roger P. Lempke , who heads Nebraska's National Guard, said the equipment issue remains a problem. "This (border deployment) is just one more thing that is reaching in and will be using equipment that we are seriously short of," said Lempke, president of the Adjutants General Association of the United States, which brings together the heads of the National Guard in each state.

The future of the National Guard is now under review by a congressional commission which is weighing proposals to make the state-based Guard undertake more domestic defense missions, a suggestion the Guard opposes. The commission is set to release a preliminary report in early June.

Bush, who favors a guest work program, sprung his border enforcement proposal the night before the U.S. Senate reopened debate on how to manage the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants. In December, the U.S. House passed a strict bill that would, among other measures, turn illegal immigration into a felony offense. The U.S. Senate has yet to pass a bill.

Lack of federal reform has left states in charge of developing their own immigration reform. The result is a patchwork of laws, with some state lawmakers pushing for increased rights for illegal immigrations, such as in-state tuition for illegal immigrants, and others pushing for a greater crackdown, such as the denial of government benefits.

Gov. Bill Richardson (D) of New Mexico said he was concerned that the White House did not consult with governors in the weeks leading up to his Monday announcement. "A phone call three hours before delivering a speech is not the same as cooperation and consultation," Richardson said Monday in a statement.

Govs. Jon Huntsman (R) of Utah and Gov. Jon Corzine (D) of New Jersey also expressed concern over the deployment, telling local media that they wanted to make sure there would be enough National Guard troops to handle state emergencies.

Still, the president appears to have listened to at least one concern raised by governors. After Hurricane Katrina, there were discussions on whether to federalize troops responding to emergencies. By keeping the guardsmen under control of the border governors, Bush has avoided a turf war with the states.

Both Richardson and Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano declared a state of emergency last summer to handle the tide of illegal immigration and together have more than 200 National Guard troops on their borders with Mexico to assist with anti-drug running operations, officials in New Mexico and Arizona said.

Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), chairman of the National Governors Association , called Bush's plan "reasonable and realistic." He was joined in support by Govs. Sonny Perdue (R) of Georgia, Dave Heineman (R) of Nebraska, John Hoeven (R) of North Dakota, Phil Bredesen (D) of Tennessee and Rick Perry (R) of Texas, according to news reports.

Texas already has used the Guard for several months in border-control capacities, including intelligence gathering and logistics. Perry told the Austin Star-Telegram he is "heartened the administration is following our lead" and suggested on Tuesday that as many as 3,000 of the guardsmen requested under Bush's plan could come from Texas.

In Washington, D.C., Tuesday, Huckabee said the proposal does not overburden the Guard because of the relatively small number of troops involved and the short deployments.

Huckabee also applauded another of Bush's proposals that would expand a Department of Homeland Security program to train state and local officials in immigration enforcement. Funding for the training — already underway in Alabama, Florida, Arizona, North Carolina and California — would be increased from $5.5 million to $50 million, White House officials said.

Napolitano, a Democratic governor in the state with heaviest influx of illegal immigrants, also commended Bush's proposal. She, along with all three southern border governors, face re-eleciton this year.

"A comprehensive approach, such as the President outlined — that includes strong enforcement, a temporary worker program, employer sanctions and a rational plan to handle the 11 million people already in the country illegally — is the only way we can ultimately deal effectively with the issue of illegal immigration," Napolitano said in a statement Monday night.

The National Guard employs 444,000 soldiers between its two branches: the Army and Air National Guards. Less than 2 percent of the Guard's total force would be called to the border under Bush's plan for 6,000 troops. As of March, 55,000 Guardsmen were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan — down from 80,000 a year earlier. Under the U.S. Constitution, each state's National Guard unit is controlled by the governor in time of peace but can be called up for federal duty by the president.

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