State’s Guard troops headed to border duty will have focused mission

The contingent of National Guard troops scheduled for deployment next month at the California- Mexico border will be smaller and more narrowly focused than past missions, aiming at front-line deterrence rather than building fences and roads, according to federal officials.

The 224 California National Guard members are part of President Obama’s move to bolster enforcement efforts along the entire U.S-Mexico border, first announced in May. Most of the 1,200 National Guard troops heading to the frontier, about 550, are going to Arizona, the major illegal immigration corridor into the U.S.

The California contingent will be posted at strategic areas across San Diego County and will drive U.S. Border Patrol vehicles, using binoculars and night-vision goggles to spot incursions and report them to federal agents, according to Kim Holman, a National Guard spokeswoman.

They will also scan the ocean from coastal outposts to help stem a recent surge of immigrant-laden boats trying to land on area beaches. The troops will be armed, but won’t be making arrests of illegal immigrants, she said.

“They’re a visible deterrent … and additional eyes and ears in the field,” Holman said.

The deployment comes as arrests of illegal immigrants in California, an indicator of overall crossing activity, have dropped to record lows. About 60,000 immigrants have been arrested in the Border Patrol’s San Diego sector since the federal fiscal year began Oct. 1. In 2009, 118,000 immigrants were arrested.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, after a brief tour of the San Diego-Tijuana border Wednesday, expressed support for the Obama administration’s decision to send troops, calling it a “good effort,” but said much more needs to be done to secure the border.

“It is probably true what Secretary [of Homeland Security Janet] Napolitano says that it is secure as it ever has been, but it has never been secure, so therefore it becomes irrelevant,” he said at the news conference.

The Obama administration’s move has been criticized as a politically motivated effort to look tough on border security in the hopes of gaining backing for more comprehensive immigration reform.

Schwarzenegger took a swipe at lawmakers in Washington for refusing to push immigration reform. “When can we touch the subject if it is always a pre-election year or election year? It’s crazy,” Schwarzenegger said, urging lawmakers to take a stand.

“You have to be courageous because you have to make decisions many times that are not popular,” Schwarzenegger said, “and I can tell you this firsthand.”

When the California National Guard contingent reports for duty on Sept. 1, it will represent a scaled-back version of Operation Jump Start, the guard deployment from 2006 to 2008, when 1,500 troops in California focused primarily on infrastructure construction projects.