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Putting Guard on border debated

Skepticism voiced on role of troops

WASHINGTON -- A White House decision to tap thousands of National Guard troops to curb illegal immigration got a tepid response on Capitol Hill and has mixed support among governors whose states border Mexico.

President Bush's Oval Office address tonight will include a plan to disperse more Guard troops along the porous Mexican border as a stopgap until the Border Patrol can handle the task, White House officials said.

Bush aides were working into the night yesterday to resolve details of the proposal and ease concerns among some federal and state officials that it would overburden the military. The officials would not say how many troops would be used, except that it would be in the thousands.

Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont were among the lawmakers voicing doubts about the idea.

The plan would use federal funds to activate additional Guard soldiers to secure the US-Mexico border along Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas.

The Border Patrol last year arrested nearly 1.2 million people who attempted to enter the United States from Mexico; an estimated 500,000 slipped in.

''The notion of using National Guard to support border patrol is not a new one," national security adviser Stephen Hadley said yesterday on CNN's ''Late Edition With Wolf Blitzer." ''It's not about militarization of the border. 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."

Hadley said the National Guard border security plan -- as well as spending hundreds of millions to construct a security fence along the Mexican border -- was among several options being considered by the White House.

President Vicente Fox of Mexico telephoned Bush yesterday to express his concern about the border plan. White House spokeswoman Maria Tamburri said Bush told Fox 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."

Fox's office said the two presidents agreed that immigration overhauls must go beyond the punitive measures that some Republicans have advocated to stop the illegal arrivals.

Senate majority leader Bill Frist, Republican of Tennessee, endorsed the National Guard proposal as a speedy action plan while an immigration bill wends its way through Congress.

''Everything else we've done has failed; we've got to face that," Frist told Blitzer. ''We need to bring in . . . the National Guard."

But Hagel, sponsor of compromise immigration legislation that the Senate is scheduled to discuss this week, expressed skepticism. About 75 percent of the National Guard's equipment is in Iraq, and some Guard troops have already endured up to four tours of duty in that war zone, Hagel said.

Patrolling a domestic border is ''not the role of our National Guard," he said on ABC's ''This Week."

Leahy echoed Hagel's concerns. ''We're stretching them pretty thin now. We're going to make a border patrol out of them?" he said on CNN.

''We asked them two years ago, why don't you fund the Border Patrol positions that the Congress has provided? You know what we got from Homeland Security for an answer? Nothing. Nothing at all," Leahy said.

Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, in a press release, said that state had been promised 250 new Border Patrol agents by the Department of Homeland Security. ''But New Mexico continues to wait for help while the new agents are being hired or are in training," Richardson said.

New Mexico has 68 National Guard troops working full time along its border, taking apart cars in search of bombs and drugs, and flying nighttime reconnaissance missions to spot illegal aliens.

Still, Richardson derided the White House plan as a ''short-term fix" that could create problems because states contend with such natural disasters as wildfires and hurricanes with the National Guard's help.

For example, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney declared a state of emergency yesterday, activating the National Guard to help respond to flooding caused by days of torrential rain.

''I am concerned the administration has not consulted with us directly -- the border governors who deal with this every day," Richardson said.

The few hundred soldiers now working on the 2,000-mile border with Mexico help search for drug smugglers and illegal entrants, and provide heavy equipment support.

''I think each state has to identify what law enforcement they can put on the front line, what the resources are, and, at that point in time, determine how much of the National Guard will be necessary," Frist said on CNN. ''The National Guard will be under state control. They need to determine how many people will be required along that Texas or Arizona or California border."

Governor Janet Napolitano of Arizona has already asked for more National Guard troops to join the 170 already posted at the nation's busiest entry point for illegal immigrants. The state has experienced a fivefold increase in illegal immigration since the 1980s.

The order Napolitano signed recently would lead to more troops monitoring crossing points, inspecting cargo, and conducting surveillance.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, however, cautioned Friday that the White House's National Guard plan ''is maybe not the right way to go." He said ''the federal government should put up the money to create the kind of protection the federal government is responsible to provide."

Two-thirds of the nation's border with Mexico is along Texas. That state's governor, Rick Perry, has frequently criticized the federal government's failure to police the border adequately. The Texas governor could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Bush's talk on border security and immigration coincides with the Senate's debate, scheduled to begin today, on immigration reform. Bush is expected to express support for a temporary worker program and a plan to give illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.

The president's speech will be carried live at 8 tonight on CBS, CNN, Fox, and NBC. ABC had not announced its plans last night. Material from Globe news services was included in this report.

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