A member of the National Guard in Texas surveys the terrain from a Border… (Delcia Lopez, Associated…)
Reporting from Washington — The Obama administration has extended the deployment of 1,200 National Guard troops along the Southwest border for an additional three months.
The troops sent to assist the Border Patrol last August were scheduled to withdraw at the end of June, but have been ordered to remain in place until Sept. 30, according to Matthew Chandler, a spokesman for the Homeland Security Department.
The extension is intended to help prevent illegal border crossings and stop shipments of cash moving south from drug sales while the Homeland Security Department adds more patrols, fences and sensors in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.
National Guard troops are not authorized to stop smugglers or make arrests. Instead, they have acted as lookouts for Border Patrol agents and provided logistical and intelligence support, freeing up more frontline law enforcement officers to stop cross-border traffic.
The troops were sent to the border last summer as a temporary surge of manpower after Congress approved $600 million for the Homeland Security Department to hire 1,000 additional Border Patrol agents, 250 officers at ports of entry and 250 Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.
The politically popular surge of manpower and funds comes as the number of illegal immigrants crossing into the U.S. is declining. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, about 300,000 illegal immigrants crossed the border annually between 2007 and 2009, down from about 850,000 annually from 2000 to 2005.
The National Guard extension drew some criticism from advocates for immigrants. The Obama administration was caving in to "shrill voices who have repeatedly called for more and more enforcement resources at the border, regardless of cost or need," said Ali Noorani of the National Immigration Forum, a pro-immigrant advocacy organization.
The Homeland Security Department is spending part of its cash infusion on new mobile camera towers, fencing and increasing the number of surveillance drone flights along the border.
Three Border Patrol drones fly out of Sierra Vista, Ariz., and one is based in Corpus Christi, Texas. Part of the $600-million supplemental funds will pay for the purchase of two additional Predator B drones, said a department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publically about the surveillance program.
The extension of the National Guard units will act as a "critical bridge" while the Homeland Security Department continues to spend the funds, Chandler said.
Since being deployed last summer, National Guard troops have assisted with the seizure of more than 14,000 pounds of drugs and spotted illegal crossings that lead to more than 7,000 arrests by Border Patrol agents.
Since 2004, the Border Patrol has doubled in size to more than 20,700 agents.