Border Troop 'Surge' Underway, Debate Over Who's In Charge

Republicans accuse administration of lagging on Aug. 1 date for troops.

August 17, 2010, 10:37 AM

WASHINGTON, Aug. 18, 2010 -- More than two weeks after National Guardsmen in four southwest states began assuming a new border security mission, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and Sen. John McCain are continuing to blast the federal government and the Obama administration over the timing and speed of the deployment.

"We haven't even seen the Guard that the president said they were going to send to the border," McCain told the Yuma Sun on Friday. "It's outrageous that they have said they would be here on August 1 and we haven't seen a single one."

"The fact of the matter is, when they came out and told us they were going to send the 524 National Guard troops to our (Arizona's) border, everybody assumed we would have 524 starting in August," added Brewer.

The Arizona National Guard confirms that no soldiers have yet assumed active roles assisting Border Patrol agents in the new mission, though several will complete training and join the ranks in the next few days.

But sources close to the operation say Aug. 1 was never a deadline for all troops to be in position on the ground, and that the persistent criticism reflects a misunderstanding of the word "deployment" and of the role and operation of the National Guard.

President Obama on May 25 authorized federal funding for 1,200 Guardsmen -- including 524 in Arizona -- to assist immigration enforcement operations in the four states bordering Mexico. Two months later the administration announced details on timing of the plan.

"Secretary Napolitano announced the active deployment of 1,200 National Guard troops on the southwest border, and that will begin on August 1st," said U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Alan Bersin at a briefing on July 19.

"We believe that we'll be fully ready through the month of August as we ramp up," said Gen. Craig McKinley, Chief of the National Guard Bureau. "Surely by September we should have our full forces in the field working with our partners."

Lost in the ongoing debate over when the troops will arrive on the border, officials say, is the fact that each state is responsible for recruiting, training and assigning its own Guardsmen to support the southwest border mission in its state. The process ultimately remains under the direction of each state's governor, which in Arizona is Jan Brewer.

"Each state retains control of their Guardsmen under the command and control of the governor and the adjutant general of that particular state," said National Guard Bureau spokesman Jack Harrison, in a conference call with reporters. "So I would be very hesitant to get in front of the state as to its plans on timing in a very specific way."

Arizona National Guard Recruits, Trains Volunteers for Border

Obama's plan authorizes 524 troops in Arizona, 250 in Texas, 224 in California and 72 in New Mexico. More than 100 additional troops from the border states will serve in command and control positions.

While federal funds will pay for the additional boots on the ground, the troops themselves belong to those states and will operate in their home state.

"We're on track," said Arizona National Guard spokesman Lt. Valentine Castillo of the effort to recruit and train more than 500 Arizona volunteers.

Castillo said the Arizona Guard has received dozens of applications but has not yet filled all authorized positions – something he expects to be completed by the end of September or early October.

"The first group [of volunteers] has started ethics training, learning rules on the use of force and entry identification team procedures," he said. "We're training them as they come, and then send them incrementally down to the border to begin working with Border Patrol."

National Guard members leave their full-time day jobs to undertake the one-year commitment. Federal law protects them from losing their jobs while they are away on the mission.

"They are college students, professionals, attorneys, accountants – a cross section of Arizona society," said Castillo of the volunteers who had come forward. "They're all volunteers and they are enthused to help this mission."

Across all four states, about 470 of the 1,200 troops authorized have signed up and received their orders to begin training, the Guard Bureau says.

"Without being an English major, I don't know if I'm going to say this right, but we didn't see the words 'deployment begins August 1st' as anything other than a start to the action of deploying people to the mission, and others saw it as the actual 1,200 people start that day," said Harrison.

The Guardsmen will serve in two key roles – one as criminal analysts and also on so-called entry identification teams, which help spot illegal border crossers.

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