Amid challenges and controversy, California agrees to send National Guard to southern border
WASHINGTON – California on Wednesday joined the plan to deploy National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border, as federal and state officials face challenges in boosting security to stop illegal immigration.
With more than 2,000 National Guard troops now pledged in the coming weeks from all four southern border states, officials will face significant costs and work to coordinate a comprehensive plan to assist patrols along the border.
California was the lone holdout among the four border states to finally join the effort, which was trigged by President Donald Trump’s memorandum on April 4 requesting states sends troops to the southern border.
California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat who has pushed against the Trump administration’s immigration policies, had said he was reviewing the request and it wasn’t clear if his state would participate.
But a week after the presidential memo was issued, Brown told Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen that his state was signing on to send 400 troops, but California would not support many of Trump’s immigration goals.
“Your funding for new staffing will allow the Guard to do what it does best: support operations targeting transnational criminal gangs, human traffickers and illegal firearm and drug smugglers along the border,” Brown wrote Wednesday in a letter to both secretaries. “But let’s be crystal clear on the scope of this mission. This will not be a mission to build a wall. It will not be a mission to round up women and children or detain people escaping violence and seeking a better life. And the California National Guard will not be enforcing federal immigration laws.”
Still, officials are now grappling with an overall plan to determine what other states could participate and to what extent, in the wake of the White House pronouncement last week to send thousands of troops quickly to the southern border.
The 2,000 troops pledged by the governors of Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and now California to aid in protecting the border reaches the lower end of President Donald Trump’s goal to send 2,000 to 4,000 troops.
But even as plans hit the one-week mark since Trump’s directive for states to deploy the troops, much confusion remains. The troops’ mission, any additional states participating, timing considerations and costs still remained largely unclear.
Similar operations have cost more than $100 million annually, and in one case, more than $500 million.
“States are still digesting the proclamation,” said Mark P. Nevitt, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. “Trump's proclamation to deploy the (National Guard) was not driven by requests from the states for federal funding and support – unlike in 2006 and 2010. This is unique.”
Unlike previous efforts under former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, a rushed call for the deployments by the White House and reluctance among critics to contribute to the plan has made for a rocky launch.
Under Trump’s memorandum, state governors are in the driver’s seat on whether to deploy National Guard troops to the border or not. Trump’s request was issued under Title 32 of the U.S. Code, which designates a state-led operation that is federally funded.
Nevada and Oregon have rejected any potential efforts to contribute to the buildup.
“As Commander of Oregon’s Guard, I’m deeply troubled by Trump’s plan to militarize our border,” Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, said April 4 in a series of tweets. “There’s been no outreach by the president or federal officials, and I have no intention of allowing Oregon’s Guard troops to be used to distract from his troubles in Washington."
A spokeswoman for Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Republican, said the effort wasn’t considered an “appropriate mission,” after consulting with Brig. Gen. William R. Burks, the adjutant general of the Nevada National Guard.
So far, the Pentagon has offered some brief details on the operation, saying the troops would provide air support, road and infrastructure maintenance and help operate surveillance systems. The troops will not be conducting arrests, however.
And while state opposition could help slow the overall effort, it won’t halt it, said Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at Washington think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“States can make it harder but they can’t stop the president’s policy,” he said. This is drawing opposition because “it’s symbolic of the president’s immigration policy. It’s going to get some opposition. Under a different president and a different time, these states may have gone along with it.”
Past deployments provide a guide
The same effort trigged by Trump last week has been used in recent years by former presidents. In 2006, more than 6,000 National Guard members were deployed in support roles to the southern border under Bush, while 1,200 were dispatched under Obama in 2010.
Operation Jump Start under Bush cost an estimated $1.2 billion for two years, while Operation Phalanx under Obama came in at costs of about $110 million in the first year.
Now, participating states are scrambling to replicate the efforts.
“Each state (National Guard) bureau will work with the federal government” to the scope of the activity, Nevitt said. “But as command and control resides with the state governor, they can limit and define their participation. Those negotiations are likely occurring now.”
For now, the initial funding will likely come from the personnel budget for the National Guard, which for fiscal year 2018 is about $12 billion, said Andrew Sherbo, a University of Denver finance professor who has tracked government and defense budget issues.
Travel and per diem costs would be pulled from the operations and maintenance budget for the Guard, which is about $14 billion this year, he added.
“The Guard may simply be doing training on the border,” so that could mean marginal personnel costs, Sherbo noted.
For now, it appears Texas, Arizona and New Mexico will deploy the largest share of troops.
Texas, which is leading the charge, deployed 250 troops Friday and plans to deploy 300 troops weekly until more than 1,000 are stationed at the U.S.-Mexico border, Gov. Greg Abbott said.
"Texas is preparing to increase our National Guard presence to more than 1,000 along our southern border," Abbott said Tuesday in a statement.
The first wave of 250 Texas-deployed troops began planning for follow-on forces and a wave of 300 troops will report this week to armories for required processing and training before being equipped for the mission, according to the Texas Military Department, which is the military arm for the Lone Star state.
These troops will provide support that will free up Border Patrol agents by assisting with surveillance, operating detection systems, providing mobile communications, assisting with border-related intelligence and providing aviation assets, transportation, training and other missions, the state’s military department said.
Arizona officials said 250 troops were deployed Monday followed by another 113 Tuesday for a total of 338. The Guard members will provide support to federal, state, county, tribal and local law enforcement agencies to stop illicit activity such as the flow trafficked people, criminals, narcotics, weapons and ammunition, according to the Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs.
“I am grateful for this administration’s actions to address border security,” Gov. Doug Ducey said Monday in an opinion piece for USAToday. “But with a border nearly 373 miles — longer than the entire length of Pennsylvania — we can’t do this on our own.”
New Mexico, meanwhile, said it will deploy 80 National Guard members later this week, and eventually reach 250 for the state’s operations.
“We are proud of our soldiers and the work they continually do in order to keep New Mexico safe,” Gov. Susana Martinez’s office said in a statement.
Critics to the plan have accused Trump of using the National Guard as part of a political move, especially in light of Department of Homeland Security data showing arrests for illegal border crossings had reached a 46-year low by December. White House officials, along with other supporters such as Texas Gov. Abbott, have since said they expect those figures to tick up dramatically this spring.
Trump has said the military would be deployed until a border wall is built – one of the president’s central campaign promises.
Wall proposal using the military
It remains to be seen whether the Defense Department can fund or take part in the building of a wall along the southern border, an effort promoted by Trump recently.
For now, the lack of clarity might have administration lawyers busy researching the effort, said one expert.
“I’m sure the lawyers are pouring through all the appropriations law to see if there is some loophole,” Cancian said.
Offhand, there are pieces of the border near military bases, and it’s possible a fence could be built or replaced there, he said.
However, “I’m sure they have a pretty good fence already” in those cases, Cancian added.
Sherbo, the finance professor, said the National Guard won’t be used to build the wall.
“That is a big misconception,” he said. “They are deployed to provide security until funding for the wall of $25 billion is approved and construction completed. The $25 billion would be in the Department of Homeland Security budget.”
The debate has set off varying approaches on Capitol Hill to head off such an effort.
Last week, Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., ranking Democrat for the Senate Armed Services Committee, wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis that such a move was questionable legally.
But Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., a Marine veteran irked by Trump’s efforts to build the wall filed legislation last year to thwart such a move to use Pentagon funds.
Gallego argued it is legally plausible for Trump to use military funds for the wall, which is why he filed the legislation last year and plans to re-file this year.
“I saw that the movement for the border wall was being stalled out in Congress just not because of Democrats but Republicans [too],” Gallego said last week, referring to why he proposed the plan last year. “I know this president is very petty and small” and would go after military funds.
Stars and Stripes reporter Dianna Cahn contributed to this report