Guard troops slow to fill president’s order at border

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The Bush administration said yesterday that 2,834 National Guard troops are on assignment to the U.S.-Mexico border, though most of them are still in transit or training and not actively helping support the U.S. Border Patrol.

About 300 are part of the Joint Task Force headquarters, and another 912 are “forward deployed,” meaning they are active in supporting the U.S. Border Patrol, the Guard said. The more than 1,600 remaining troops are still in training or transit.

Although only one-third of the forces are forward-deployed, the administration said, that ratio will build gradually as other troops complete training.

President Bush in May called for 6,000 National Guard troops to work on the border in a support role, conducting surveillance and helping build infrastructure such as vehicle barriers. The administration promised 2,500 troops by the end of June and 6,000 by August, to be stationed until more Border Patrol agents can be hired.

White House spokesman Tony Snow said yesterday that the deployment of Guard troops “has freed up nearly 200 Border Patrol agents already to spend more time literally walking the borders.”

He said that action and Mr. Bush’s other border security moves have reduced illegal immigration. “Immigration into the United States across the Mexican border has actually been declining since the year 2000, and it’s down dramatically in the last few months. So it’s working,” he said.

The Guard was credited with helping apprehend 518 illegal aliens, 21 vehicles, 4,770 pounds of marijuana and 18.5 pounds of cocaine as of yesterday. The Guard also helped rescue 10 illegal aliens and provided support duty to allow 187 Border Patrol agents to conduct patrols, administration figures show.

Lt. Col. Mike Milord, a spokesman for the National Guard, said most of the 300 or so troops at the headquarters will be assigned for one or two years, while the other troops are more likely to be filling their yearly training commitments.

Training lasts anywhere from five days to several weeks, depending on the tasks, he said.

The Associated Press, quoting Guard officials in border states, said last week that the administration would fall short of its goal of 2,500 guard troops assisting by July 1.

Mr. Bush’s credibility on immigration enforcement is at stake as he negotiates with members of Congress on a reform program. Republicans in both the House and Senate have wondered whether the president is serious about border security.

“Where have you been the last five years while your administration failed to secure the border and enforce immigration laws?” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said last week after Mr. Bush said he wanted to help employers verify their workers.

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