President Bush is expected to call for the deployment of “several thousand” National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexican border as part of a broader effort to overhaul the U.S. immigration system.
The White House is saying that the deployments will only be temporary and will not include physical patrolling of the 2,000 mile border by Guard personnel. That will be left to Border Patrol agents whose numbers along the border will be augmented chiefly through turning over administrative duties to contractors.
At least that is how the White House is spinning the solution. But with some of the more conservative Members of Congress calling for the physical deployment of 36,000 or 48,000 troops to the border, the details may well change by speech time.
The last time troops were used along the border was in 1997 in an anti-drug role. The mission was to monitor and report movements so that the Border Police could swoop in and make an arrest. The deployment of small Marine detachments to perform the border watch ended after a Marine shot and killed Ezequiel Hernandez, a goatherd moving his animals along a border he might well have not known.
The White House is dodging questions about which Guard units will be tapped, who will command them, and other details. Many Guard combat units are still trying to recover from lengthy deployments to Iraq where the fatalities – 20 percent of total U.S. deaths – and the wounded unable to return to duty have left key vacancies in unit rosters. Moreover, equipment damage is so severe that a significant number of combat and transport vehicles cannot be repaired but will have to be replaced. The only good news is that just two Guard brigade combat teams are in the Iraq rotation.
The bad news is that over the weekend, governors of three New England states – New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Massachusetts – have declared their states disaster zones because of extensive flooding. Maine may become a fourth. The declarations allow the governors to call out their states’ National Guard to help maintain order and assist ordinary citizen as requested. This “traditional” mission suffered during last hurricane season, in the view of some administration critics, because Guard units from Mississippi and Louisiana were in Iraq when hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf coast.
As to command and control, the troops involved in the border call-up are expected to be under state command but paid by Washington. In the longer run, governors and adjutants general are seeking more power to shape the debate about and missions assigned to Guard units. Bipartisan legislation that has the backing of the states would elevate the Chief of the National Guard Bureau to four-star rank – equal to the service chiefs – and give him or her a seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He (or she) would also become the Deputy Commander of Northern Command, created after September 11, 2001, to coordinate the defense of the continental U.S. against attack and organize the Defense Department’s response should an attack succeed.
Will it work? With a border 1,951 miles long and a nominal Guard strength of 430,000, it would seem possible on the basis of sheer numbers – about 215 troops per mile. Unarmed reconnaissance drones would stretch the coverage, as would the border fence in California, now covering 83 miles. The House of Representatives passed a bill in December 2005 that would authorize barrier fencing totaling 850 miles in the four border states (Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California) at a cost of $2.5 billion – nearly $3 million per mile.
Solving the border question equitably will take creative thought. That should rule out any thought of trying to fence the 5,525 miles of the U.S.-Canadian border. One can only hope that – to paraphrase Lily Tomlin – the person responsible for developing a radical, workable, fair system isn’t the person who thought up Muzak.