Some National Guard troops deployed to the U.S.-Mexico border will be allowed to carry weapons — but they will not, under any circumstances, be allowed to enforce immigration laws nor will they be put in a position where they’re likely to encounter illegal immigrants, top administration officials said Monday.
More than 900 troops were on the border already this week: 650 of them in Texas, 60 in New Mexico and about 250 in Arizona.
But California, which last week had signaled a willingness to help, has effectively withdrawn its commitment. Gov. Jerry Brown offered such strict conditions that the guard wouldn’t have been allowed to watch surveillance cameras, fix Border Patrol vehicles, operate radios or perform clerical duties that could have freed Border Patrol agents to get into the field.
Homeland Security officials said they’ll make another offer as they hope to entice Mr. Brown back to the table with a different set of duties. One option would be to have the guard screen cargo coming through the official ports of entry, which would allow troops to assist without worrying about facilitating the Border Patrol in catching illegal immigrants, drug-smugglers or other cross-border illegal activity.
“We are anticipating additional requirements. We got a signal from California they’re interested in improving border security. At some point that might come together,” said Ronald D. Vitiello, acting deputy commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, which oversees both the Border Patrol and the ports of entry.
Mr. Brown faced severe criticism at home after he said last week he would be willing to offer some 400 National Guard troops to President Trump’s border surge, under strict conditions. Immigrant-rights advocates said he should have refused to offer any assistance.
The governor appears to have heeded the criticism in curtailing his offer.
Texas, Arizona and New Mexico, though, have embraced Mr. Trump’s request, with Republican governors in those states even holding high-profile send-off ceremonies for their troops.
“Texas has stepped up to answer the call,” Gov. Greg Abbott said as he reviewed his troops last week.
Mr. Trump’s deployment, dubbed Operation Guardian Support, is still coming together, and there is no cost estimate yet. But officials said they’re planning for about 2,000 troops total.
And they insisted they won’t make the same mistakes as previous deployments such as Operation Jump Start during the Bush administration, when guard troops were deployed for construction and other forward activities — but were unarmed and had to be protected by Border Patrol agents.
Agents at the time dubbed it “nanny patrol” duty, and said it meant that while the guard freed agents from some duties, many of them ended up on protection jobs anyway, undercutting the force multiplier the guard was supposed to be.
“They’re not going to be in that similar kind of role,” Mr. Vitiello said, promising they learned the lessons of the earlier deployment.
He and Defense Department officials briefed reporters on the deployment two weeks after Mr. Trump said he was sending troops to help out, and a week after the first guard deployments reached the border.
Each of the three officials at the briefing repeatedly said none of the troops will be allowed to enforce laws, including immigration laws, during their time on duty. In fact, they’re being kept away from anything that could lead to encounters with illegal immigrants.
“They will not be placed in direct contact with personnel coming across the border,” said Robert G. Salesses, a deputy assistant secretary of defense.
Despite that standoff role, some of the troops may still end up armed. The officials said those decisions will be made by governors and local commanders based on self-defense needs during each mission.
“They’ll take a look at the exact job the person’s doing,” said Lt. Gen. Daniel R. Hokanson, vice chief of the National Guard Bureau.
The administration said guard troops are a bridge designed to help get the country closer to “operational control” over the border. Mr. Vitiello said changing U.S. law to cut down on “loopholes” could change the incentives that are drawing a renewed surge of illegal immigrants to make the journey.
While illegal crossings dropped to historically low levels early in Mr. Trump’s tenure, they have since returned to Obama-era levels — with particularly striking rises in illegal immigrant children and families.