Citing budget cuts, the Obama administration early next year will cut the number of National Guard troops patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border by at least half, according to a congressman who was briefed on the plan.
The National Guard said an announcement will be made by the White House “in the near future,” but Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican who has learned of the plans, said slashing the deployment in half is the minimum number, and he said it will mean reshuffling the remaining troops along the nearly 2,000-mile border.
In California, that will mean going from 264 guard troops down to just 14, he said.
Mr. Hunter said the pending cuts are another reason Congress and President Obama should revisit the automatic defense spending reductions that kicked in with the failure last month of the deficit supercommittee.
“What’s apparent now is that a decision not to continue their deployment, even though it might be in the national interest to do so, would be based entirely on budget constraints on the Defense Department,” Mr. Hunter said.
Mr. Obama deployed 1,200 guard troops to the border in June 2010 in an effort to bolster the U.S. Border Patrol and try to prevent the growing drug violence in Mexico from spilling into the U.S.
He charged the guard with aiding in intelligence gathering and other backup duties, though troops have not been actually enforcing immigration laws.
The troops were scheduled to be drawn down this June, but Mr. Obama extended their deployment, saying there was still work to be done.
The troops were meant to be a bridge to beef up support staffing while the Border Patrol hired more agents under a bill Congress passed early in his term.
A Homeland Security Department official said they have made progress in hiring and training new agents.
There were supposed to be nearly 21,500 agents in the Border Patrol as of Oct. 1, which represents an increase of 1,300 since Mr. Obama took control of the budgeting process in 2009.
Homeland Security officials say the boost in resources at the border has made the region safer. They pointed to the latest figures that showed illegal immigrants apprehended along the Southwest border fell to 327,577 in fiscal year 2011, down from 447,731 in 2010 and from 1.6 million in 2000, which was the peak year. Homeland security officials say fewer apprehensions means fewer people are trying to cross.
Sending guard troops to the border is a recurring strategy for administrations seeking an instant boost in security.
President George W. Bush deployed 6,000 guard troops in 2006 to counter criticism he wasn’t taking border security seriously. As with Mr. Obama, Mr. Bush said the agents were meant to be a bridge until the Border Patrol could hire more agents.