SACRAMENTO — Despite some misgivings, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Thursday he would send 1,000 National Guard troops to the Mexican border as part of President Bush's plan to curb illegal immigration.
Schwarzenegger said the mission would begin July 15 and end no later than Dec. 31, 2008 -- a deadline, he said, that ensures the Guard won't be locked into an open-ended commitment.
Schwarzenegger, speaking at a news conference in the Capitol, also said the Guard would rely on volunteers for the assignment and that troops would be spared the riskiest duty, involving arrest and detention of people crossing the border illegally. About 700 Guard troops have expressed interest thus far, he said.
They will fix trucks, repair roads, operate cameras and perform other logistical duties, freeing U.S. Border Patrol agents for potentially more hazardous work.
Stints at the border would last from six months to a year -- reflecting Schwarzenegger's conviction that Bush's plan to rotate troops in and out every two weeks made little sense.
Amid a bitter debate over illegal immigration, Schwarzenegger seems to be staking out a middle ground.
He is striving to deflect accusations that he is "militarizing" the border, emphasizing that most Guard troops will be unarmed and a step removed from the front lines. At the same time, the governor does not want to be seen as ignoring Bush's call to shore up a border that Schwarzenegger has derided as dangerously porous.
The governor is expected to sign an agreement with the federal government spelling out the terms of the operation. Dubbed "Operation Jump Start," the agreement specifies that the federal government would cover costs that may run to $96 million a year, state officials said.
As of Thursday night, Schwarzenegger, the Pentagon and governors in other southern border states were working out details of the agreement. Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano agreed to deploy 300 National Guard soldiers from her state to the border beginning in mid-June, the Associated Press reported.
Maj. Gen. David Rataczak, the Arizona National Guard adjutant general, said some of the Arizona troops will go to the border with their units for weeks-long annual training, while others will go as volunteers for longer stints.
As of now, the president's $1.9-billion request to finance his plan for increased border security is pending in Congress.
Bush laid out his plan to shore up the border in a nationally televised speech May 15. He said he wanted 6,000 National Guard troops to aid in border security.
Schwarzenegger quickly voiced doubts about the plan. He questioned whether it would make a real difference and worried that the state might not be repaid.
At his news conference Thursday, the governor said that over the last two weeks he had struck a satisfactory compromise with the Bush administration.
"The mission that I will assign to our California National Guard will be significantly different from the plan laid out by President Bush," Schwarzenegger said. "We will assist in a manner that protects our troops and uses our men and women in the most effective and appropriate way possible."
One key was setting a date by which the operation would end, he said.
As Bush structured the plan, the governor was free to cooperate or opt out, according to state Guard officials. Should the president try to extend the deployment, Schwarzenegger said, he would use his authority as commander of the California guard to resist.
"Well, I'm the commander in chief, so I can take back the National Guard at any time that I want," the governor said. "That is the most important thing, that there is control over that. And like I said, we are doing this, may I remind you, reluctantly. I mean, it's not my preference to send the National Guard to do this mission."
But it was necessary, he said, "to help the federal government to secure our borders ... "
State Democratic leaders said that committing Guard troops is a mistake.
Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), who was briefed on the plan by the governor, predicted that Latin America would find the move offensive.
Nunez said he also feared the commitment would stretch thin a National Guard that is crucial to California's recovery in the event of an earthquake or other natural disaster.
"When you deploy the National Guard to the southern border -- but you don't do the same to the northern border -- then you send a message that the problem is Latin America," he said. "This doesn't send a message of friendship. It sends a message of antagonism to our friends in the south. I don't think it will be well-received."
Most Guard troops won't be armed, though local commanders will be free to authorize firearms if they determine soldiers are in jeopardy, Guard officials said.
They also said there should be enough Guard troops to respond to natural disasters -- despite the commitment of troops overseas and, now, at the border.
Of the 20,000 California National Guard troops, about 2,200 are overseas. Assuming 1,000 go to the border, that still leaves plenty of troops to respond to disasters, Guard officials said.
Nunez said he was not convinced. The Assembly speaker said the governor and Guard officials "seem to feel confident we have enough manpower in the National Guard to respond to a natural disaster. I'm not totally convinced that's the case."