Obama Likely To Be Cautious About Military On Border

Obama team likely to be cautious about military on border
Krentz family, friends still wait for troops

By Brady McCombs and Tim Steller
The Arizona Daily Star (Tucson), April 11, 2010

A day after laying rancher Robert Krentz to rest at funeral services in Douglas, his family and others are still waiting for troops to be deployed to the border.

The Krentz family called for the active-duty military to be deployed, and many of their neighbors have demanded that troops not only come but be given authority to track lawbreakers, arrest them and – if threatened – shoot.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer wants to deploy 250 additional National Guard soldiers but doesn't want to use state funds to pay for them. The federal government hasn't answered a formal request from her and other border governors.

But even if troops are sent, it's unclear whether they would perform the active, law-enforcing role supporters envision. The National Guard can be assigned to law-enforcement duties, as it was during President Obama's inauguration and after Hurricane Katrina, but the Guard has been assigned only support duties in past border missions.

'The Obama administration would likely be quite cautious in whatever role they assign to troops placed at the border, and for good reason – to try to minimize the possible unwanted impacts of such a large demonstration of force,' said David Shirk, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington D.C. and director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego.

The 140 Arizona National Guard troops now assigned to support the Border Patrol in Arizona help with surveillance, analysis and drug-education efforts.

In the Operation Jump Start border mission that ran from 2006 to 2008 across the U.S.-Mexico border, the National Guard helped the Border Patrol by building roads and fences, operating radios and sitting in observatory posts near the border to report activity. Guardsmen were not allowed to apprehend or engage.

That's not what Portal-area resident Tom Hays and others want.

'If you send the National Guard, you've got to let them do their job,' said Hays. 'If not, it's like having nobody at all.'

Posse Comitatus Act

Despite what many think, the federal Posse Comitatus Act does not prohibit the National Guard from taking an active law-enforcement role on American soil, said Rick Breitenfeldt of the National Guard Bureau.

'We can do pretty much anything that we are asked by the Department of Defense or the president of the United States,' Breitenfeldt said.

At Obama's inauguration, 10,000 National Guard troops were deputized by Washington, D.C., police so they could take law-enforcement action if necessary.

During Operation Jump Start, the National Guard was given Title 32 status, which allows a more active role. But since it was asked only to support the Border Patrol and report illegal entries, it stayed within that role, Breitenfeldt said.

When a group of armed men approached a post east of Sasabe on Jan. 3, 2007, four Tennessee guardsmen vacated the post and moved back. The retreat set off a firestorm of criticism and led to a hearing of a state House committee where a National Guard major had to defend the guardsmen's actions.

Support Role OK

The risks of an active military presence on the border became clear in 1997, when U.S. Marines working on an anti-drug task force shot an 18-year-old U.S. citizen near the border town of Redford, Texas. Esequiel Hernandez Jr. was herding goats when he fired his antique .22 caliber rifle and the camouflaged Marines, feeling threatened, killed him.

This time around, Border Patrol agents would welcome the National Guard in a support role, but asking guardsmen to track and apprehend illegal border crossers could be problematic, said Brandon Judd, executive vice president of the Arizona chapter of the Border Patrol agents union, Local 2544.

Border Patrol agents receive extensive training to ensure they don't violate the rights of people they encounter, he said.

'Without the proper training, you open yourself up to liability,' Judd said.

Calls for the military, which date to the Mexican Revolution, have become politically motivated, knee-jerk overreactions to incidents, said Wayne Cornelius, director emeritus of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at University of California-San Diego. It would be best to leave border work to the Border Patrol, he said.

'They are the trained professionals in immigration law enforcement, including tracking and apprehending people-smugglers,' Cornelius wrote in an e-mail. 'We should leave it to the professionals.'

Since Krentz's March 27 killing, Homeland Security officials have moved more Border Patrol agents into the area.

For and Against

For many residents shaken by the killing of the well-known and highly regarded Krentz, the deployment of troops is necessary.

'The Mexican outlaws have total control, and it's going to get worse,' said rancher Ed Ashurst, a neighbor of Krentz's. 'There are going to be more dead people until they put the Army on the line.'

Others, though, don't want troops back, at least in the form they've been there before.

'Everybody wants them to put troops on the line,' said rancher Wendy Glenn, a neighbor and friend of Krentz's. 'There would be more people putting out tracks, and vehicles tearing up open space wherever they go.'

Instead, Glenn said, she wishes Border Patrol agents would be better equipped with radios that can communicate with one another across sector lines and with more mobile radar stations. Others want more cell-phone towers to speed up emergency response times.

Another Krentz neighbor, Bill McDonald, said the National Guard would help in the short run but the problems associated with smuggling require a more sustainable response.

'Once you pull them out, what happens?' said McDonald, a fifth-generation rancher. 'There has to be a way better strategy than slapping the guard in there when things get tough.'

Up to Washington

A federal decision to send the National Guard would have to come from the White House or the Department of Defense. The White House says it's committed to securing the nation's borders but wouldn't say if it plans to send troops.

Border state governors have been requesting the National Guard since spring 2009, but the Obama administration has been reluctant to pull the trigger because of concerns about militarization and the strain troops are already under with oversees conflicts, said Shirk of the Trans-Border Institute.

Cost is an issue, too. The federal government spent $1.2 billion to send 6,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border under Operation Jump Start.

Brewer said the state would be able to sustain the Guard only for a short period, which is why she wants the federal government to step up and pay. Securing the border is a federal responsibility, she said.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson sent an additional 35 guardsmen to the border in reaction to the Krentz killing, but it's unclear how long they'll be there.

One thing is clear: the killing of Krentz and subsequent calls for troops have amped up the pressure on the Obama administration, Shirk said.

'It's an election year, and they certainly don't want to be seen as soft on national security,' Shirk said. 'They are more likely to send troops this year than last year because there is a greater sense of urgency.'