With border violence flaring again, the two U.S. senators from Arizona on Monday called on President Obama to deploy 3,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in their state, saying the borders must be secured before the White House pursues a broader immigration bill.
The call from Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl, both Republicans, was made the same day Arizona’s Legislature approved a bill to make it a state crime to be an illegal immigrant. The measure now goes to Gov. Jan Brewer, who has not taken a position on the measure.
“It’s a very important step forward,” said Mr. McCain, who in the past had fought for a broad bill legalizing illegal immigrants but who on Monday said illegal immigration has led to deteriorating security in Arizona.
The senators said they want Mr. Obama to deploy 3,000 National Guard troops until Arizona’s governor certifies that the government has operational control. They also said an additional 3,000 Border Patrol agents should be sent to the state over the next five years.
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Mr. McCain and Mr. Kyl called on the Justice Department to expand a program that guarantees illegal immigrants serve time in jail, rather than being immediately sent back across the border. Mr. Kyl said the program has shown great promise where it’s been used.
A Homeland Security spokesman said the administration is evaluating law enforcement options, including using the National Guard, but pointed to strides made over the past five years to boost the U.S. Border Patrol.
“The Border Patrol is better staffed today than at any time in its 85-year history,” said spokesman Matt Chandler, pointing to the more than 4,000 agents in Arizona and 20,000 total across the country, or more than twice the number compared with six years ago.
Security along the border has become a national issue again after a rancher was killed on the U.S. side of the border in what authorities say could have been related to a drug cartel, and after two U.S. citizens and a Mexican employee of the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, were killed. Both incidents happened last month.
“Things are out of control. We need the help of troops that are deployed along the border,” said Paul R. Babeu, sheriff of Pinal County in central Arizona, who appeared with Cochise County Sheriff Larry A. Dever and the two senators at a news conference at the Capitol.
Sheriff Babeu said he has seen a marked increase in the past four months in the aggressiveness of those crossing the border illegally and that they are more frequently armed.
He said illegal immigrants have figured out that police rules require officers to stop pursuits if citizens are endangered. That has led to illegal immigrants intentionally trying to run other drivers off the road in an effort to force police to give up the chase.
Republicans’ push to highlight border security could hurt Mr. Obama’s efforts to pass an immigration bill this year. Last year, Ms. Napolitano, who was governor of Arizona until joining the Obama administration, said the U.S. border was secure enough that Congress should enact a bill to legalize the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already in the U.S. and provide a way for more foreign workers.
But Republicans are questioning that idea after the recent killings, including that of Rob Krentz, a rancher near the U.S.-Mexico border who may have been targeted by drug cartels.
In the wake of that killing, the Arizona Legislature has acted. The bill sent Monday to the governor would require police to conduct immigration-status checks when they find someone they think might be in the country illegally, and it makes it a state crime to be there without authorization.
It also makes it illegal to knowingly hire or transport illegal immigrants.
“Most of us in law enforcement welcome this legislation,” said Sheriff Babeu. He said it brings uniformity to the state, so all police know what’s expected of them, and illegal immigrants know the penalties.
In 2006, facing accusations from Congress that he had been lax on border security, President Bush deployed the National Guard to support the Border Patrol in the Southwest, with mixed results.
Some National Guard troops built infrastructure or handled clerical tasks to free up Border Patrol agents. In other instances, Border Patrol agents had to be assigned as bodyguards to protect Guard units, many of which were not allowed to carry loaded weapons. Border Patrol agents called the assignment “the nanny patrol.”
Sheriff Babeu said troops should serve a support role and make their presence on the border to show the enforcement action is serious. He said illegal immigrants will respect and fear the military uniform.
Still, Angela M. Kelley, vice president for immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, said Mr. McCain and Mr. Kyl’s plan is incomplete as long as it focuses only on security, not on a legal channel for future workers and current illegal immigrants. She said those broader measures are the only ways to take pressure off the border.
“They’ve only got half the plays in the playbook if you want to focus just on border security,” she said.
Her organization released a report on border security last week that called for sharing technology with Mexican authorities, and backed the idea of a binational border authority with its own budget and staff to create unified procedures for security, back-and-forth traffic and protecting the environment.
For Mr. McCain, who is now involved in a tough primary battle with former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, Monday’s embrace of a security bill was controversial.
He was a key author of an immigration-reform bill a few years ago and was a chief backer of efforts in 2006 and 2007 to pass a measure through the Senate. But after that 2007 bill failed, Mr. McCain said voters need to be convinced that the borders are secure before they will accept any action on legalizing illegal immigrants.
Mr. Hayworth called Mr. McCain’s move an “election-year gimmick,” while immigrant rights groups said they felt betrayed by a former ally.
“What a sad day,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a leading advocacy group. “Obviously, John McCain is fighting for his political life in Arizona. I sure miss the days when he fought for his principles.”