- The Washington Times - Friday, May 12, 2006

President Bush is looking at ways for the military to play a broader role along the U.S.-Mexico border and will announce new immigration initiatives in a prime-time address from the Oval Office on Monday night.

“We are looking at all options as we continue to do the best we can to help secure the border,” one senior administration official familiar with the details of Mr. Bush’s speech told reporters yesterday, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Mr. Bush has been under pressure from Republicans and Democrats to prove the government can control the border, and Monday’s speech gives him a chance to talk about new steps he can take, but also to tout improvements the administration already has taken.

The 8 p.m. speech will come the day the Senate returns to the immigration debate, after Senate leaders this week reached agreement on a bill that allows in millions of new foreign workers and gives most current illegal aliens a path to citizenship. The House, meanwhile, passed a bill in December calling for more immigration enforcement but no guest-worker program and no citizenship route for illegal aliens.

“This is crunch time on the issue,” said White House press secretary Tony Snow, explaining why Mr. Bush is speaking now, more than two years after he announced his own immigration plan.

The president is facing abysmal ratings on the issue. A Zogby poll released last week found just 9 percent of those surveyed approved of Mr. Bush’s handling of border security, and his handling of immigration overall was only slightly better, at 13 percent approval.

A congressional source said Homeland Security officials have presented a want-list to the Defense Department and a second senior administration official, who asked not to be named, said an interagency team is looking at a wide array of possible border-security missions for the National Guard.

The second administration official refused to rule out the use of some active-duty forces.

The interagency meetings have been led by the White House and include the Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security. The official said the White House is looking at military involvement as an interim measure until the Border Patrol can increase its numbers.

“It is difficult to immediately create thousands of new border guards,” the official said. “There is so much capability that resides in the National Guard that that’s everybody’s first choice. We are examining options, and that is the stage we are in right now. The question is not so much one of numbers, but of capabilities.”

The possible National Guard roles: joining the Border Patrol on patrols, especially at known points of entry for illegal aliens, constructing or improving roads used by border agents and aerial surveillance.

Still to be worked out is whether the governors or the president would command the fresh troops, and whether federal money would fund the missions. Guard troops are under the control of state governors, until activated by the Pentagon. Some governors already have activated Guard units for border duty, but typically the chief executives guard their prerogative to control troops in their states.

The military already is assisting on the border by flying unmanned spy aircraft. Historically, the Pentagon has been reluctant to engage troops in law-enforcement work and thereby risk violating federal law.

But increasing the military’s role is a shift of sorts for the administration. Just last month, commenting on the Senate debate, the administration said it was “concerned” about provisions in the Senate that would “require increased use of military surveillance assets in controlling the U.S. border to prevent illegal immigration.”

Still, using the military is a popular option among many lawmakers and the public. A Time magazine poll last month found 62 percent support for using the military to guard the border.

The House approved an amendment yesterday as part of a defense bill that authorizes the Pentagon to use the military in a wide range of border-control missions, including cargo inspections. To use troops, the secretary of Homeland Security must certify that it “is necessary to respond to a threat to national security posed by the entry into the United States of terrorists, drug traffickers or illegal aliens.”

The administration official familiar with the president’s speech said the White House decided at least three weeks ago to go ahead with such an address.

Mr. Bush already has ruled out deporting all the estimated 10 million to 12 million illegal aliens currently in the United States. The official said the speech will cover that, will encourage lawmakers to reach an agreement this year that includes a guest-worker program and will again urge lawmakers to conduct a civil debate.

That official said the administration’s strategy has been not to get bogged down by taking a stand on specific parts of the House or Senate bills, but rather to push for an agreement. The official compared the strategy to the Medicare debate, when Mr. Bush pressed both chambers to produce bills and get to a conference committee where they hammered out the differences.

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