State Officials Chafe at Bush’s Plan for Guard
California’s highest-ranking officials were reacting with displeasure and exasperation Wednesday to President Bush’s plan to use thousands of National Guard troops to support border patrols and curb illegal immigration.
State Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland) said he would move to freeze $38 million in California Guard funding that could be used for border patrols. And he ordered legislative hearings on the Bush border proposal, giving Democrats another public forum in which to criticize it as a distraction from the Guard’s primary role in disaster relief.
“I do not want to spend any money at all, invest a dime, into anything that weakens our ability to respond to a state disaster when it comes,” Perata said.
For his part, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was demanding answers -- to a host of questions -- from Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who briefed him Wednesday. The governor had spent 45 minutes on the phone with Bush senior advisor Karl Rove on Monday about the plan. But after both conversations, the governor complained about being left in the dark.
In a letter Tuesday night to Chertoff, Schwarzenegger called the border security plan a “logistical nightmare” and asked several questions: Who determines when troops come home? What criteria would determine whether their mission was successful? And how would California handle the “staggering” job, as Schwarzenegger put it, of providing support for the thousands of troops who will be cycled into the border region for two-week rotations?
“Think about it,” he said Wednesday after a Sacramento speech. “Every two weeks we will rotate out the National Guard? That’s like starting a heart surgery and having the whole team of doctors and nurses leap up after every five minutes and switch. How are you going to be successful with that? I have a lot of concerns with it.
“But bottom line is we want to be cooperative. We want to be helpful in this crisis. And we want to come in, but just temporarily. Not permanently.”
After his phone conversation with Chertoff on Wednesday, the governor remained dissatisfied, an aide said. “Following 40 minutes, it was evident the administration did not have all the answers Gov. Schwarzenegger was looking for,” said Adam Mendelsohn, the governor’s communications director.
Schwarzenegger faces a decision in a matter of weeks on whether to commit the California Guard beyond the 150 members now serving in support positions along the border. The White House has said it wants to begin widespread deployment in early June. Under the Bush proposal, Guard troops operating along the California-Mexico border would remain under Schwarzenegger’s control rather than being federalized as are the Guard troops sent to Iraq.
But Pentagon and Homeland Security officials would determine their jobs, all expected to be behind the scenes, including office support, intelligence, surveillance and building fences. The plan is designed to free up federal agents to focus on capturing illegal immigrants rather than working in supporting roles.
Among other GOP elected officials, support for Bush’s plan was muted and confined to conservative lawmakers who already had staked out tough stands on immigration. Assemblyman Ray Haynes (R-Murrieta) embraced it but said Bush also should have proposed tougher enforcement of immigration laws.
“The other thing they really need to do is set up an interior enforcement process so that if they’re working illegally in L.A., you catch them,” Haynes said.
The Bush proposal calls for 6,000 National Guard troops from various states to work on border duties during the first year. Because each National Guard soldier is required to serve only two weeks a year in a training rotation, the plan would require a total of 156,000 guard troops throughout the Southwest border region in the first year alone. There are more than 440,000 National Guard troops around the country.
California has 20,000 of those, including about 1,600 serving in Iraq and 600 elsewhere overseas.
Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) said he was “very saddened and deeply disappointed” that Schwarzenegger would even consider sending Guard troops to the border. He warned that they could stay years beyond expectations.
“We’ve already seen what that means -- temporary basis -- when it comes to the Bush administration,” he said, comparing the plan to the Iraq war.
The White House has said the federal government would fund the new Guard mission. But Perata, the state Senate leader, said withholding related state funding was “a matter of moral principle and constitutional precedent.” He said the Guard’s money could be restored “once we have answers” from Guard officials about the scope of their mission.
“The end game is to know that the president of the United States is putting California residents in high jeopardy for political purposes,” Perata said. “This is a foreign policy matter that he’s doing, and he’s doing it at the expense of California residents. I think we should all know that.”
Bush’s plan is complicating his own efforts to resurrect his political image, and, given immigration’s history as a political issue, he could be putting Schwarzenegger in a difficult political position during his reelection campaign.
If he sends troops, Schwarzenegger risks upsetting those who don’t want the border militarized. If he does not, he will irritate those who want strict controls.
The issue is also sure to dominate discussion next week when Schwarzenegger is scheduled to meet Mexican President Vicente Fox in Sacramento.
In response to the Bush plan, Democratic leaders in the Assembly brought forth Maj. Gen. Paul D. Monroe, who led the California National Guard from 1999 to 2004. He said he doubted the Guard would have the equipment it needed to serve at the border, and he called such a deployment unfair to already-stressed military families and employers.
“It’s just something that we should not have to put these people through again,” Monroe said. “They are dedicated patriots. But we have a saying in the Guard: The Guard should be the last force in, the first force out.
“They provide assistance to law enforcement, they don’t do law enforcement work.”
Times staff writers Peter Nicholas and Jordan Rau contributed to this report.