WASHINGTON—The first National Guard troops to help the U.S. Border Patrol stem the flow of illegal immigrants from Mexico could begin work as early as next week, defense officials told Congress Wednesday.
Teams of about 200 soldiers each will begin planning missions with U.S. Border Patrol and Customs officials as early as June 1, said Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, the National Guard's top officer.
Bush administration officials have provided a number of details about the border security plan in the past week, but testimony by Blum and other officials before the House Armed Services Committee was some of the most in-depth explanations of how it's supposed to work.
"This will be a temporary mission, as was airport security after 9/11," said Blum. "We expect to work ourself out of a job here as quickly as the Border Patrol and Customs, law enforcement agencies and (Department of Homeland Security) are able to assume the mission."
Blum said teams would be made up of volunteers from California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas who will stay on duty for at least a year to manage other National Guard forces who will work on 21-day rotations.
President Bush announced May 15 that he would send as many as 6,000 National Guardsmen to reinforce U.S. Border Patrol officers along the 2,000-mile-long U.S.-Mexico boundary. The deployment could last as long as two years while the Border Patrol trains 6,000 new officers.
About 10,300 of the agency's 11,583 officers are stationed along the Mexican border, said David Aguilar, U.S. Border Patrol chief. They're overtaxed by millions of illegal crossings each year. Last year, Border Patrol officers caught and sent home almost 1.2 million people who were caught trying to enter the United States illegally.
While lawmakers agreed that strong action was needed, they raised concerns over how well National Guard forces would be trained for the mission, how it might affect the Guard's ability to provide troops for the Iraq war and still respond to domestic emergencies, and how armed troops might interact with civilians.
"Not all units sent to the border region will be performing tasks that fall within the given tasks that they have been trained to perform," said Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., the committee's top Democrat. "I am greatly concerned about the impact this plan will have on the operational readiness of those units and the additional strain it will have on the National Guard."
Blum said that the troops deployed at any given time would represent less than 2 percent of available Guard forces. About 71,000 National Guardsmen are in Iraq out of a total force nationwide of 445,000 part-time soldiers and airmen.
No forces will come from states that are likely to experience hurricanes this year, Blum said.
Paul McHale, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense, said troops will conduct aerial surveillance and reconnaissance, build new roads and fences, provide intelligence and analysis to help track illegal crossings, transport Border Patrol officers and detainees, and assist with a number of logistics functions.
"Law enforcement along the border will remain a civilian function," McHale said.
Aguilar said the National Guard presence would allow more than 500 officers working in clerical and other jobs to return to law enforcement.
Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, who served 26 years in the Border Patrol, said border security needs to be improved, but the presence of National Guard forces might send the wrong message.
"The concerns that many of us have ... is that we're doing something here that is giving the impression that we consider Mexico and Latin America our enemies and that we're putting troops on the border," he said.
Guarding the border is a federal responsibility, but the states will provide the National Guard troops, who normally are under command of the governors unless they are called to federal service. Under those criteria, governors could refuse to participate in the plan. Bush administration officials, however, say the states have been supportive.
"There seems to be no reluctance on the part of California, Arizona, New Mexico or Texas adjutants general or governors to in fact do this," said Blum, referring to the advance teams.
Even though the federal government is picking up the tab for the mission, McHale said National Guard troops would remain under the control of the governors of the states in which they operate.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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