President Bush will call for thousands of National Guard troops to be deployed along the Mexico border in support of patrols aimed at keeping out illegal immigrants, White House officials said Sunday on the eve of an Oval Office address announcing the plan.
White House aides worked into the night Sunday to iron out details of the proposal and allay concerns among lawmakers that using troops to man the border would further burden an overextended military.
Two White House officials said Bush would propose using troops as a stopgap measure while the Border Patrol builds up its resources. The troops would play a supportive role to Border Patrol agents, who would maintain primary responsibility for physically guarding the border.
The officials spoke on a condition of anonymity before the address Monday at 8 p.m. EDT. The officials would not say how many troops Bush wanted to use, except that it would be in the thousands but less than an estimate of as many as 10,000 being discussed at the Pentagon.
The White House announcement followed Mexican President Vicente Fox's telephone call to Bush on Sunday to express his concern about the border between the two nations. Also, members of Congress said Sunday they thought that using Guard troops to keep illegal immigrants from crossing the border would further burden an overextended military.
The criticism on the eve of Bush’s planned Oval Office speech to the nation on immigration came from Democrats, but also an important Republican negotiator in the immigration debate — Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. He said National Guard troops cannot secure the border over the long term and that he does not think it is wise even in the short term.
“We’ve got National Guard members on their second, third and fourth tours in Iraq,” Hagel said. “We have stretched our military as thin as we have ever seen it in modern times. And what in the world are we talking about here, sending a National Guard that we may not have any capacity to send up to or down to protect borders? That’s not their role.”
White House spokeswoman Maria Tamburri said Bush made clear to Fox in the morning telephone conversation that “the United States considered Mexico a friend and that what is being considered is not militarization of the border, but support of border capabilities on a temporary basis by the National Guard.”
She said the two presidents discussed cooperative efforts underway along the border and that Bush reiterated to Fox “his commitment to comprehensive immigration reform.”
She said Fox “reached out” to Bush, but she did not know how long the call lasted or the time it occurred.
A news release from Fox’s office said the Mexican president initiated the call and characterized Bush as “analyzing the administrative and logistical support of part of the National Guard, not the army, to help police on the border.”
The Mexican release said that Bush and Fox agreed that a comprehensive immigration reform is needed in the United States.
“In the conversation, President Bush reiterated his conviction that the migration issue can only be resolved with an integral and comprehensive reform,” said the release.
The president’s national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, said sending troops to patrol the border with Mexico is among the ideas Bush is considering on immigration.
“It’s not about militarization of the border,” Hadley said on CNN’s “Late Edition.” “It’s about assisting the civilian border patrol in doing their job, providing intelligence, providing support, logistics support and training and these sorts of things.”
Address on Monday night
Bush planned to say in his national address at 8 p.m. EDT Monday how the government should deal with border security and illegal immigrants already in the United States, Hadley said.
“The president is looking to do everything he can to secure the border,” Hadley said on “Face the Nation” on CBS. “It’s what the American people want.”
Bush is considering the National Guard plan as he seeks support from conservatives in Congress for his immigration bill. Bush wants to allow foreigners to get temporary work permits to enter and work in the U.S., but many conservatives want a tougher approach on illegal immigrants trying to sneak into the country.
Frist supports idea
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said he supported using the National Guard on the Mexican border. He said lawmakers who doubt that the National Guard, whose members have served for years in Iraq and went to the Gulf Coast after last summer’s hurricanes, could take on border patrol duty are “whining” and “moaning.”
“We’ve got to secure our borders,” Frist said on CNN’s “Late Edition.” “We hear it from the American people. We’ve got millions of people coming across that border. First and foremost, secure the border, whatever it takes. Everything else we’ve done has failed. We’ve got to face that. And so we need to bring in, I believe, the National Guard.”
Hagel said the bill under debate in the Senate that he helped write would double the 12,000-strong Border Patrol force over the next five years. “That’s the way to fix it, not further stretching the National Guard,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.”
Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., said there may be a need for troops to fill in while the Border Patrol is bolstered. But he did not seem confident that the National Guard could take on the extra duty.
“We have stretched these men and women so thin, so thin, because of the bad mistakes done by the civilians in the military here, that I wonder how they’re going to be able to do it,” Biden said, also on ABC.
About 100 National Guard troops are serving on the border to assist with counter-drug operations, heavy equipment support and other functions. Bush is considering an increase into the thousands, and Hadley would not directly rule out using armed National Guard troops directly on guard duty.
Hadley also would not say whether Bush supports building a fence or wall along part of the border with Mexico. Hadley said Bush and Congress will have to decide how immigrant workers who are in the U.S. illegally can become citizens.
Frist said the full Senate planned to begin debating the immigration bill Monday and that it would take up to two weeks to pass.
Senators would have to resolve any differences with the House version of the bill, which did not address the guest worker issue but increases penalties for illegal immigration activities and funds a 700-mile border fence.