National Guard troops will head to the U.S.-Mexico border Aug. 1 for a yearlong deployment to keep a lookout for illegal border crossers and smugglers and help in criminal investigations, federal officials said Monday.
The troops will be armed, but can use their weapons only to protect themselves, Gen. Craig McKinley, chief of the National Guard Bureau said at a Pentagon news conference. The troops will undergo initial training and be fully deployed along the nearly 2,000-mile southern border by September.
The deployment announcement comes as drug-related violence has escalated in Mexico. Several people were killed over the weekend in a car bombing and in a separate massacre at a private party in Mexico. It also comes as the U.S. debate over illegal immigration has intensified in this election year.
“The border is more secure and more resourced than it has ever been, but there is more to be done,” said Alan Bersin, commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, part of the Homeland Security Department.
The 1,200 troops will be distributed among four border states, with Arizona getting 524; Texas, 250; California, 224 and New Mexico, 72. Another 130 would be assigned to a national liaison office.
Bersin also said the Homeland Security Department will provide six more aircraft, including helicopters, to the border. He said at least 300 Customs and Border Protection agents and inspection officers would be sent to the Tucson area, along with mobile surveillance vans and additional technology.
“It will help,” Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, said Monday in Santa Fe, N.M., where he was attending the annual meeting of the Conference of Western Attorneys General. “Manpower clearly has been deficient. Technology has been somewhat deficient and they’re bolstering that.”
But the governors of Texas and Arizona, both Republicans, complained last week that 1,200 troops are insufficient.
McKinley said even though the four border states are contributing 54,000 troops to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they still have a sizable number of guard troops in the states for other deployments or disaster response. More can be deployed at state cost if governors wish, but the 1,200 are being paid for by the federal government, he said.
“Right now I cannot see a case where we would be overextending the National Guard for this effort,” he said.
As part of the effort, Immigration and Customs Enforcement is beefing up its presence in Arizona, said John Morton, the Homeland Security Department assistant secretary overseeing the agency.
Morton said ICE is opening a new office in Ajo, Ariz., to focus exclusively on cross-border crime and to deploy a specialized investigative team in Douglas, where an Arizona rancher was murdered.
Also, the agency will send ICE lawyers to U.S. attorneys offices to help prosecute felons who illegally re-enter the country after deportation. It also will increase the number of ICE agents in Mexico to 40, making it ICE’s largest office among 63 offices in 44 countries.
“We are placing a particular emphasis on the Tucson sector in Arizona, an area favored by smugglers and the principal point of illegal entry into the United States along the southwest border,” Morton said.
By Associated Press Writer Suzanne Gamboa
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