PHOENIX – President Barack Obama's plan to send as many as 1,200 National Guard troops to the US-Mexico border appears to be a scaled-down version of the border security approach championed by his predecessor.
The 6,000 troops who were sent by President George W. Bush to the border from June 2006 to July 2008 were generally credited within law enforcement circles as having helped improve border security, but restrictions placed on the soldiers were denounced by advocates for tougher enforcement who are now leveling similar objections at Obama's plan.
Some law enforcement officials along the border said they worry that Obama will repeat Bush's mistake by limiting the troops to support roles, such as conducting surveillance and installing lighting, rather than letting them make arrests and confront smugglers. They also believe the scale of the force — one-fifth of the size of the one sent by Bush — is too small to make a difference along the length of the 2,000-mile border.
Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever, whose jurisdiction includes about 80 miles of the Arizona-Mexico border, said 1,200 soldiers might make a difference in a smaller portion of the border. "But if you spread it across the border, it's like spitting into the wind," Dever said.
Under the Obama plan, the troops will work on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support, analysis and training, and support efforts to block drug trafficking. They will temporarily supplement border patrol agents until Customs and Border Protection can recruit and train additional officers and agents to serve on the border. Obama also will request $500 million for border protection and law enforcement activities.
Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, a Democrat who has prosecuted rings of drug and immigrant smugglers, said the planned deployment was a good first step, but believes that the president's plan should evolve to include more troops and more authority for the soldiers.
"I'll take what we can get," Goddard said. "Again, I don't think this is the final response."
The Mexican government issued a statement saying it hoped the troops would be used to fight drug cartels and not enforce immigration laws. Mexico has traditionally objected to the use of the military to control illegal immigration.
When Bush sent the National Guard to the border, the troops performed support duties that tie up immigration agents, who then had more time to arrest illegal immigrants.
The troops under the Bush deployment didn't perform significant law enforcement duties. They installed vehicle barriers, operated remote cameras, repaired vehicles, worked as radio dispatchers and performed other duties. Troops who manned mobile observation towers had used binoculars to search for and report border breaches.
The effect of the troops was felt by the smugglers and would-be border-crossers during 2006 in Palomas, Mexico, a smuggling hub south of the village of Columbus, N.M., where a buildup of border agents, surveillance cameras, vehicle barriers and troops were credited with reducing smuggling traffic.
Vendors in Palomas reported a significant drop in the number of backpacks they sold to border-crossers for carrying their food, water and clothing in during their walk into the United States. "There are not many people because of the soldiers that were put on the border," vendor Elisco Hernandez Gonzalez told The Associated Press two months after the Guard was sent to the border.
Republican state Sen. Russell Pearce of Arizona, the author of the state's new immigration law, said he fears Obama will repeat Bush's mistake in not giving the troops the power to confront violent smugglers and other armed criminals along the border.
Pearce was disturbed by an incident in 2007 where National Guard troops backed off and called in federal agents as gunmen approached their post near the Arizona-Mexico border.
While supporters of the decision said the Guard members did as they were supposed to, Pearce questioned the point of having troops on the border if they can't confront such dangers. "It was a welcome-wagon role last time," Pearce said. "They weren't allowed to do anything."
T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, a union representing 17,000 agents, said he doesn't see the broad outlines of the Obama plan as a solution to border violence.
"People shouldn't be surprised if the violence continues," Bonner said. "They shouldn't expect that the announcement of up to 1,200 National Guard members will send a shock wave of fear in the cartels and that they will start playing nice."
Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, a major in the Arizona Army National Guard who served as a commander in Yuma, Ariz., during the 2006 deployment, said Obama's plan is welcome news that will help confront border security weaknesses, but it doesn't go far enough.
Babeu, who wasn't speaking on behalf of the National Guard, said the visible presence of armed soldiers is an effective deterrent for illegal immigration. "They're not given law enforcement authority, but the fact that they're there, keeping watch, 24/7, has proven to be the most effective solution for border security," Babeu said.
Associated Press writers Paul Davenport, Michelle Price, Amanda Lee Myers and Jonathan J. Cooper contributed to this report.