Reporting from Washington — President Obama will send up to 1,200 additional National Guard troops — and request $500 million in additional funds — to support law enforcement efforts along the Southwest border, the White House said Tuesday.
The move was widely seen as offering the president political cover for his pursuit of immigration reform.
The National Guard will target the trafficking of people, money, drugs and weapons, national security advisor James L. Jones and counterterrorism advisor John Brennan said in a letter to Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), noting that more than 300 troops were already on the ground. The troops won't make arrests or otherwise intervene directly, according to an administration official who was not authorized to speak publicly.
The White House said the money would allow the U.S. Border Patrol to zero in on more smuggling routes, and it would fund more prosecutions in overstretched federal courts along the border.
"This is the latest step in an ongoing effort to ensure the federal government fulfills its responsibility to secure the Southwest border," the official said.
The move comes a month after Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told a Senate committee that the U.S.-Mexico border "is as secure as it has ever been" and pointed out that crime rates on the U.S. side had declined, despite a spate of drug-related violence on the Mexico side.
Republicans criticized her remarks, and have been demanding that the administration step up efforts to tackle illegal immigration and border violence.
Obama's announcement also comes as illegal immigration is believed to be at its lowest levels in years. Apprehension rates, considered the best available indicator of illegal border crossings, have steadily declined over the last decade. The Border Patrol arrested 556,000 people last year, down from a high of 1.6 million in 2000.
But Republicans have been hammering Obama on the issue. In a letter to the president last week, Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl, both Republicans, called for sending at least 6,000 National Guard troops to the border.
A Gallup poll released May 5 showed that two-thirds of Americans wanted the federal government to do a better job of securing the border. Concerns about border security helped drive the passage of the recent Arizona law empowering local police to help identify, arrest and deport illegal immigrants.
Obama argues that the answer to concerns about immigration rests in a new law that combines tough enforcement with a path to legalization for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living in the United States. President George W. Bush tried and failed to pass such a measure in 2007, and many observers think there is even less chance of it succeeding this year, with midterm elections approaching.
The deployment of additional National Guard troops undermines the Republican assertion that the White House is lax about strengthening the border, said a second Obama administration official, not authorized to speak on the record.
"They're running out of excuses," the official said. "For those who are making the case that we have to be more vigorous about enforcing the law, it does call the question."
At a news conference in Phoenix, Arizona Atty. Gen. Terry Goddard, a Democrat who is running for governor, called the border initiative "an important commitment of national attention to the real problem that we are facing here in Arizona and throughout the Southwest, and that is the violent crime fomented by the criminal drug cartels."
The announcement from the White House came after Obama lunched at the Capitol with Senate Republicans, urging them to come on board an immigration bill without mentioning his new enforcement plan. Republicans said Obama's announcement was a good step, but an insufficient one.
"It's simply not enough. We need 6,000," McCain said Tuesday on the Senate floor. "The situation on the border [has] greatly deteriorated during the last 18 months."
In 2006, President Bush sent 6,000 National Guard members to Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas. Their presence was meant to step up security while the Border Patrol expanded its ranks. They stayed from June 2006 until July 2008.
Napolitano, then Arizona governor, was among those who called for sending the Guard in 2006. The Border Patrol more than doubled in the last eight years, and now stands at 20,000.
However, there is no evidence that National Guard deployment impeded illegal immigrants, said Wayne Cornelius, director emeritus of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at UC San Diego.