The White House will send up to 1,200 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border and will ask Congress for $500 million to boost border security, officials said Tuesday, as President Obama tried to take control of the border security debate just as the Senate was about to take up a much bigger deployment.
The president's decision left immigration rights groups furious and left those calling for better border security unimpressed - "It's about one-fourth of what we need," said Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican - but it does refocus the national debate squarely on border security.
The troop deployment was announced by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Arizona Democrat, and quickly confirmed by senior Obama administration officials.
The president is seeking "a requirements-based, temporary utilization of up to 1,200 additional National Guard troops to bridge longer-term enhancements in border protections and law enforcement personnel," said National Security Advisor James L. Jones and Mr. Obama's homeland security advisor, John O. Brennan, in a letter to Congress.
Mr. Obama's decision was announced on the same day the president met with Senate Republicans to beg them to work with him on a broader immigration bill that would legalize illegal immigrants, giving them a path to citizenship. But senators said it was odd that Mr. Obama made no mention of the troop deployment during the session, even though Mr. McCain and fellow Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl have repeatedly called for National Guard troops and made the case to him personally in the meeting.
Details of the deployment were sketchy, and it was unclear what the National Guard's specific mission would be while on the border.
The decision puts Mr. Obama squarely in the footsteps of his predecessor, President George W. Bush, who in 2006, just as the Senate was beginning an immigration overhaul debate, announced his own deployment of National Guard forces to the border.
Mr. Bush sent National Guard troops to build fencing and other infrastructure and help the U.S. Border Patrol with surveillance and support tasks, though they were not allowed to enforce immigration laws. Mr. Bush called the troops a temporary measure to fill a gap while he boosted the number of Border Patrol agents.
But the troops faced so many restrictions on their activities, including carrying weapons, that some Border Patrol agents said they found themselves assigned to what they called "nanny patrol," which amounted to protecting the National Guard troops.
The White House said Tuesday the new troops will "complement the strong security partnership with Mexico."
In a statement Tuesday, the Mexican Embassy said it hopes the added force will stem southward flows of firearms and funds as well.
"The government of Mexico trusts that this decision will help to channel additional U.S. resources to enhance efforts to prevent the illegal flows of weapons and bulk cash into Mexico, which provide organized crime with its firepower and its ability to corrupt," the embassy said.
The embassy also said it does not expect U.S. troops to be directly involved in immigration enforcement.
Immigrant rights advocates said the deployment amounted to a one-upsmanship and called Mr. Obama's move a mistake.
"Considering that crime and illegal border crossings in Arizona are both as low as they have been in 30 years or so, it seems that the GOP Senate primary's escalating game of who is 'mas macho' when it comes to immigrants is driving an inordinate amount of national policy," said Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, Illinois Democrat, who has taken a leadership role in trying to get a bill passed by Congress.
Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, a leading advocacy group, said Mr. Obama went into his Capitol Hill meeting with Senate Republicans on Tuesday with a high ground appeal for bipartisan cooperation, but ended up "giving in" to Mr. McCain and Mr. Kyl.
"Talk about one step forward and two steps back," Mr. Sharry said.
Immigration has proved to be an intractable issue for lawmakers in recent years. Efforts to pass legalization bills failed in 2006 and 2007, despite backing from Mr. Bush. Some border security measures also have passed, though they were later watered down.
This year, Democratic leaders in the Senate have outlined a plan that would include a multistep path to citizenship for noncriminal illegal immigrants now in the country, and rewrite the rules for future immigrants. The plan also includes more funding for certain security functions, and would bar illegal immigrants from gaining legal status until those benchmarks are met.
But Republicans said border security not legal reform must come first.
"How do you get 60 votes for a pathway to citizenship when the whole country is focused on broken borders?" said Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, who had been working on a broad immigration bill with Senate Democrats but broke off those talks last month.
His colleagues have introduced several border security amendments to the emergency war-spending bill now pending on the Senate floor, including the McCain-Kyl proposal to add 6,000 troops, with 3,000 of them going to Arizona.
"You don't need comprehensive reform to secure the border, but you do need to secure the border to get comprehensive immigration reform," Mr. Kyl said on the Senate floor.
In their letter to Congress, Mr. Obama's advisers said there is no precedent for Congress directing the president to deploy National Guard troops like that, and said such an extensive deployment could hurt the Guard as it participates in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mr. Obama, meanwhile, will ask lawmakers to tack on $500 million to pay for his troop deployment and to boost federal customs, drug and immigration authorities.
The decision to send National Guard troops to the border was announced less than a month after Arizona enacted a law requiring police to check the legal status of those they encounter during their duties who they have reasonable suspicion to be in the country illegally. Racial profiling is specifically prohibited.
On Friday, a top federal immigration official warned that the federal government may not actually collect and deport those caught under the new law.
In the closed-door meeting with Republicans on Tuesday, Mr. Obama said he had read the Arizona law and still thought it has the potential to lead to civil rights violations.
But in Phoenix, Arizona Republican Gov. Jan Brewer credited her signing of the controversial new law for compelling Mr. Obama to act. Signing the law, Mrs. Brewer said in a statement, "clearly ignited the talk of action in Washington for the people of Arizona and other border states."
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