San Diego among areas to get troops
BY LESLIE BERESTEIN MAY 26, 2010
With national debate raging over illegal immigration and drug smuggling, the Obama administration is planning the deployment of National Guard troops to the border in San Diego County and elsewhere.
An administration official said Tuesday that the deployment of up to 1,200 Guard troops is part of a plan that will include a request by President Barack Obama for $500 million for enhanced border protection and law enforcement.
The troops will work in a support role, providing assistance to border agents with surveillance, reconnaissance, intelligence analysis and counternarcotics operations while U.S. Customs and Border Protection recruits and trains additional staff members.
That was essentially the role of about 6,000 National Guard troops deployed by the Bush administration in May 2006, about 550 of whom assisted the Border Patrol in the San Diego sector with surveillance, border-fence projects and other non-law-enforcement support. The two-year program, dubbed Operation Jumpstart, also was intended to strengthen border security while additional agents were hired.
“They helped free up the agents, so the agents could focus their efforts on securing the border,” said agent Mark Endicott, a spokesman for the Border Patrol’s San Diego sector.
Endicott had no details as to when Guard troops might arrive in the region or how many. Maj. Thomas Keegan, director of public affairs for the California National Guard, said state troops had not yet been asked to step forward.
“From the Guard’s position we stand ready, willing and able to accomplish whatever mission the president and the governor deem necessary,” Keegan said, adding that discussions with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger are under way.
The California Guard soldiers could be mobilized by order of the president, or they could be called up by the governor using federal funds.
The news from the Obama administration was cheered by some lawmakers who had been calling for stronger border protection. But it is also being met with criticism similar to that leveled against the Bush administration’s Guard deployment, including from some border-enforcement advocates.
Much like in 2006, when hundreds of thousands participated in rallies for reform, immigration has become a hot-button election-year issue, especially since a strict anti-illegal-immigration law in Arizona reinvigorated the debate. As happened with Operation Jumpstart, critics are dismissing the idea of sending troops to the border as political window dressing.
“This looks very much like an election-year ploy,” said Wayne Cornelius, co-director of the Center of Expertise on Migration and Health at the University of California San Diego. He said it’s hard to believe that the president and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano “really expect deployment of the National Guard to deter would-be illegal entrants.”
William Gheen, president of the immigration-restriction group Americans for Legal Immigration PAC, blasted the idea as “woefully inadequate.”
“I feel like a starving man that’s been handed a cracker,” Gheen said in an e-mailed statement, criticizing the relatively small number of troops.
Border Patrol agent Shawn Moran, a spokesman for Local 1613 of the National Border Patrol Council in San Diego, said that while the last Guard deployment helped to build and fix infrastructure, it did little to free more agents for enforcement duties.
“Any impact in terms of manpower is going to be minimal,” he said. “It is just all smoke and mirrors, as usual.”
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, whose congressman father was a proponent of border enforcement, issued a statement in support of the move.
Changes that go beyond border enforcement are sorely needed, said Janet Murguía, president and CEO of the Latino advocacy organization National Council of La Raza.
“We are on a collision course of enforcement-only policies, and as experience shows, this will not solve the problem,” Murguía said.
Obama has said he supports overhauling the nation’s immigration system, but it is unlikely that Congress will tackle such legislation this year.
In Arizona, Gov. Jan Brewer took some of the credit for the deployment, saying in a statement that her signing last month of a state law that empowers local police to check for immigration status “clearly ignited the talk of action in Washington for the people of Arizona and other border states.”
The law has found support among a majority of Americans in polls by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press and other groups.
Staff writer Gretel C. Kovach and The Associated Press contributed to this report.