PHOENIX – President Barack Obama's plan to send as many as 1,200 National Guard troops back to the U.S.-Mexico border quelled demands that he must do more to battle illegal immigration and drug smuggling, but advocates for tougher enforcement say the troops need authority to make detentions.
The new plan looks similar to the National Guard initiative under former President George W. Bush: Troops will work on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support, and will eventually be replaced by more border patrol and customs agents. The plan at this point doesn't call for the ability to round up suspected illegal immigrants and smugglers.
The Mexican government issued a statement Tuesday 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.
Under Bush, the National Guard troops were designed to back the Border Patrol for two years as 6,000 more agents were trained and hired, and they weren't allowed to detain immigrants or smugglers. They were pulled out in July 2008, as planned, but many argue that drug violence and immigrant smuggling continue unchecked.
Arizona's sweeping new immigration law, which requires police to question anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally, has made the topic a national campaign issue. Obama was pushed to take action Tuesday after Republicans threatened to force a congressional vote on sending troops 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 what he sees as Bush's mistake in not giving troops the power to confront and detain 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 Arizona post.
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."
Obama's plan also calls for sending only a fifth of the 6,000 troops deployed under Bush. It is unclear where on the border the soldiers will be sent.
Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever, whose jurisdiction includes about 80 miles of the Arizona-Mexico border, said 1,200 soldiers might make a difference along a smaller portion of the border. "But if you spread it across the border, it's like spitting into the wind," Dever said.
Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, a Democrat who has prosecuted 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.
"I'll take what we can get," Goddard said. "Again, I don't think this is the final response."
Obama is also requesting $500 million for border protection and law enforcement activities.
When Bush sent the National Guard to the border, the presence of the troops had a chilling effect on smugglers and would-be border-crossers, especially at spots where soldiers could be seen peering into Mexico.
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 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," said Babeu, who wasn't speaking on behalf of the National Guard.
But 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.