Troops to Mexico border: A prelude to immigration reform push?

President Obama ordered 1,200 National Guard troops to the Mexico border in an effort to reach out to Republicans. He'll need their support to move forward on immigration reform.

Matt York/AP
The American Flag flies along the international border in Nogales, Ariz., Saturday. President Obama has ordered 1,200 National Guard troops to the US Southwest.

Under pressure to help secure the US border with Mexico, President Obama Tuesday ordered 1,200 National Guard troops to the US Southwest and said he would ask Congress to approve an additional $500 million to pay for law-enforcement activities in the region.

In part, these moves are a response to rising crime. An Arizona rancher was shot near the border in March – a murder police believe related to human smuggling activity. Kidnappings linked to Mexican drug cartel activity have increased in many Southwest cities. In Phoenix, for instance, kidnapping has gone up 30 percent over the last three years.

IN PICTURES: The US/Mexico border

The National Guard deployment is also a bow to political reality.

Senate Republicans were planning to attempt to force a vote this week on just such an action. Arizona has already enacted a state immigration law the administration has criticized as draconian. If Obama is to have any chance of passing comprehensive immigration reform, he needs to do something himself about the deteriorating border situation.

In a prelude to the coming debate on the issue, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona on the Senate floor Tuesday judged Obama’s actions insufficient.

“I appreciate the additional 1,200 [troops] being sent ... as well as an additional $500 million, but it’s simply not enough,” Senator McCain said.

Administration officials announced Obama’s reinforcement of the border shortly after the president met with Senate Republicans, who pressed him on immigration and border problems, as well as other issues.

The newly deployed National Guard troops won’t themselves be riding along the US-Mexican border to help stop illegal immigration. Instead, they will work on intelligence and surveillance support issues, as well as provide training for local law enforcement, administration officials said.

By doing such work they will free up Border Patrol agents for front-line duty. They’ll serve as a supplement to existing forces until more Border Patrol workers can be hired and trained.

President George W. Bush ordered a similar deployment in 2006.

The Department of Defense dislikes using such troops to guard against illegal immigrants and drug and human smugglers. Pentagon officials do not want to be criticized for a perceived militarization of the border.

But the administration has been under increasing pressure to do something – and that pressure can be bipartisan. Earlier this month a Senate caucus on international drug trafficking held a hearing on the implications for the US of Mexican cartel violence.

Along with cross-border kidnappings, home invasions are on the rise in the Southwest, said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, a co-chair of the caucus. Since 2006, a special Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms effort to interdict smuggled firearms has seized some 6,700 guns and 780,000 rounds of ammunition, she said.

In addition, Border Patrol strength has been doubled over recent years, from 10,000 to 20,000 agents.

“Now all of this amounts to substantial progress, and yet the continuing reports of criminal activity and the escalation of that activity causes us great concern,” said Senator Feinstein.

IN PICTURES: The US/Mexico border


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