SACRAMENTO — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Wednesday he was prepared to deploy National Guard troops to the Mexican border -- but only temporarily -- as part of a national effort to curb illegal immigration.
Speaking on the eve of a visit by Mexican President Vicente Fox, Schwarzenegger said in the clearest statement yet of his intentions that he would discuss border security with Fox and press the Bush administration for answers before making a final decision but that his inclination was to send the Guard for border patrols.
"I am prepared to commit California National Guard troops in support of border patrol operations," he said at a news conference. "But it has to be on a temporary basis."
He offered no details on such a deployment and suggested that information from the Bush administration about the president's proposed National Guard border operation has been slow in coming.
He said he was still unsure how California would be reimbursed, how long the Guard would be at the border and why troops would be rotated in and out over short intervals. But he also said he wanted to help make the borders less porous.
"We've made it very clear that we are supportive of securing the borders and working with the federal government," the governor said. "But we still need to have some questions answered."
Democrats quickly denounced Schwarzenegger's position and said the timing was poor. Fox is to arrive today for a two-day visit -- his first official meeting with the governor.
"Our Guard is stretched too thin already because of the massive deployment to the war in Iraq," said Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles). "Sending our troops to the border on a 'temporary' basis will undermine their mission to respond quickly and effectively to natural disasters."
In testimony Wednesday before the House Armed Services Committee, Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said there would be 800 National Guard troops on the U.S.-Mexico border by June 1, including as many as 200 from California.
Blum said, "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."
That comment appeared to surprise the California National Guard, whose spokesman, Maj. John Siepmann, said, "There are a whole range of issues that need to be decided before the California Guard goes to the border."
Siepmann said that in earlier discussions with the National Guard leadership in Washington, D.C., the number of troops who would be initially deployed in California had never exceeded 50. He said it is not clear "where the other 150 [mentioned by Blum] came from."
After Bush outlined plans to send 6,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border, Schwarzenegger expressed skepticism. He questioned the difference a few thousand troops would make, suggesting that the United States might need eight times that number if it is serious about curbing the flow of illegal immigrants from Mexico.
Fox's visit will include a speech before a joint session of the Legislature this afternoon and a private meeting with Schwarzenegger afterward. The Republican governor faces growing pressure within his party to deliver a tough message to the Mexican leader.
Assemblyman Chuck DeVore (R-Irvine) and Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks) were planning to miss the speech.
DeVore wrote to Fox on Wednesday, telling him: "When your citizens violate the law to trade life in Mexico for dreams in America, it is California residents who suffer in traffic-jammed freeways, overcrowded schools and overburdened emergency rooms."
The leader of the Assembly's minority Republicans, George Plescia of San Diego, unsuccessfully sought a meeting with Fox to discuss illegal immigration and extradition of slaying suspects sought by California law enforcement.
In a letter to Fox, Plescia called illegal immigration "a national security issue of the highest order."
Fox declined a meeting because of time constraints, according to Plescia's office.
Schwarzenegger's relations with Mexico, California's leading trade partner, have been a minefield of border disputes, thorny racial and economic concerns and political calculations.
The governor has refused to sign legislation that would grant driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, citing security concerns. That position has been unpopular in Mexico: In 2004, Fox abruptly canceled a planned trip to California, his aides citing Schwarzenegger's refusal to bend on the issue.
Last year, the governor caused a brief furor with a comment that the United States should "close" its borders -- a position that meshed with that of some Republicans. But the governor's press office quickly clarified Schwarzenegger's remark, saying he wanted the borders secured -- not closed.
Times staff writer Rone Tempest contributed to this report.