President Bush on Monday infused his proposal for using the National Guard to combat illegal immigration with all the drama of an Oval Office address, but the military and civilian officials who will carry out the plan have deep misgivings about a real show of military force on the border.
As a result, the president’s big initiative is heavy on symbolism but will be small in scale -- and largely invisible on the ground. Though about 6,000 guardsmen at a time will be assigned to the southern U.S. border in two-week stints, they will be limited to supporting roles behind the scenes.
That reflects Pentagon officials’ reluctance to use the Guard in a direct law enforcement role, because catching illegal immigrants is not a task soldiers routinely train for. And officials in border states worry that armed soldiers will exacerbate tensions and step on local law enforcement efforts.
“I don’t want to see soldiers on the border,” said Jerry Agan, the county judge in Presidio County, Texas. That is where Marine Corps reservists -- in an incident that still casts a shadow over the region -- mistakenly killed a Mexican American shepherd in 1997. “We’ve been down that road before, and it did not work out,” Agan said.
Those sentiments were echoed by military leaders Monday. “Picture guys running around with M-16s. If I was a citizen in that part of the country, I am not sure I would want that in my backyard,” said one Army officer who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss policy.
Even in its limited form, however, the plan may run into problems on another front:
The two-week deployments for each Guard unit will take the place of the units’ normal two-week summer training periods. The arrangement should alleviate stress on Guard soldiers who already have done yearlong tours in Iraq, Afghanistan or Kosovo. But by giving up the units’ only block of sustained training time, it will complicate the task of preparing Guard troops for their primary roles -- responding to natural and other disasters and conducting combat and peacekeeping missions overseas.
Against that backdrop, military and civilian officials agreed that what the Guard should provide is support for existing border enforcement efforts. That means truck drivers, intelligence analysts and helicopter pilots, not mechanized infantry and gun-wielding soldiers.
Frank Schober, a former adjutant general of the California National Guard, said state military forces could do a lot to support the Border Patrol logistically. But he cautioned that soldiers were not trained to stop immigrants.
“Use the Guard in what it is trained for,” he said. “The military uses maximum firepower and law enforcement uses the minimum necessary.”
At the Pentagon, defense officials outlined just that sort of behind-the-curtain role -- one intended to lend a hand to law enforcement officers for a short time while the Department of Homeland Security builds up its capabilities.
A defense official said the Guard would provide intelligence analysis, mobile communications, logistics and training. The Guard also could help the Border Patrol with aerial and ground surveillance, another official said.
Steven M. Duncan, who was the assistant secretary of Defense in charge of the National Guard and reserves when the Pentagon was responsible for border drug interdiction in 1989, said there always had been an aversion on the part of the armed forces to get involved in domestic police-related missions.
He noted that the 1989 anti-narcotics operation was given to the Pentagon by Congress over the department’s objection, adding that military leaders continued to complain about the task even after it became law.
“There is some natural cultural reluctance to do these things,” Duncan said. “That becomes even more of an issue when you are actually overextended already.”
About 420 guardsmen are currently deployed on the southwestern border, assigned to help interdict illegal drugs.
The Bush proposal would boost that number by 6,000 soldiers at a time in the first year. The use of the Guard is intended to give the Border Patrol time to add about 6,000 more agents and build up its own abilities. The administration said that by 2008, fewer soldiers would be needed.
Reaction from the governors of the border states has been mixed. California’s Arnold Schwarzenegger offered a harsh assessment of the Bush administration over its “failure” to guard the border, and said lending Guard troops would be acceptable only for a few months of duty.
The Republican governor said National Guard forces stationed overseas needed to return to their lives back home and be ready for the next natural disaster -- earthquake, mudslide or wildfire -- that inevitably would strike California.
“We are already stretching and really under tremendous stress the way things are right now,” Schwarzenegger said, appearing in Oceanside to promote his education budget Monday. “They are already overloaded, and they should go back to their families and start making money again and go back to their normal careers.”
In New Mexico, Gov. Bill Richardson -- a Democrat frequently mentioned as a possible presidential candidate -- took a similar line, saying he was opposed to a long-term Guard presence because the force was needed for other emergencies.
But Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano said she has been asking for National Guard support on the border since December. The Democratic governor, who said she had concerns about Bush’s plan, spoke with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Karl Rove, the White House chief political strategist, by telephone Monday. She said they assured her that the burden of coordinating and staffing Guard units this summer -- a busy forest fire season for Arizona -- would not fall on Arizona Guard units alone.
Fran Townsend, Bush’s assistant on domestic security issues, said Guard units that would be sent to the border would come from all over the country and have specialized skills, such as surveillance or military engineering.
That is likely to mean that not all Guard soldiers would be eligible for deployment to assist in the border security mission. “Presumably, they’re not going to send an artillery guy down there to the border,” said Duncan, the former assistant secretary of Defense.
The military has been worried about the Guard being overstretched. About 71,000 of the 440,000 National Guard members are deployed overseas. About 2,200 of California’s 20,000 Guard troops currently are overseas. The number of California troops overseas reached its peak in the spring of 2005, when about 6,500 were in Afghanistan and Iraq. About 1,000 California Guard troops helped out along the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina.
Assuming that Guard members do a single tour on the border, 156,000 soldiers could rotate through in the next year.
John White, another former assistant secretary of Defense, said the quick call-ups and short tours raised their own challenges: “The issue will be whether you can train them adequately before you send them.”
Despite White House assurances that the military will be used only for support, local officials worry about the prospect of soldiers confronting illegal immigrants.
In Douglas, Ariz., Mayor Ray Borane called the plan “offensive” and “myopic,” and said it would be devastating for his city, which is 95% Latino and dependant on customers from across the border.
“I’ve already heard from them -- they’re mad,” Borane said of Mexican officials in Douglas’ sister city, Agua Prieta. “They think we’re at war with them.”
Bush will go to the southwestern border later this week to sell his proposal. He plans to deliver a speech in Yuma, Ariz., where Mayor Larry Nelson said he welcomed the Guard support.
The more that the Guard can “supplement the Border Patrol and allow more Border Patrol agents to do their job, the better off we’ll be,” Nelson said.
Times staff writers Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Aaron Zitner in Washington and Robert Salladay and Rone Tempest in Sacramento contributed to this report.