What Would the National Guard Actually Do at the Border?

Lt. Col. Kirk White, left, mayor of one of the camps in Afghanistan, discusses base operations and procedures with his team of Indiana National Guard, 38th Infantry Division, Task Force Cyclone Soldiers at Camp Atterbury Joint Maneuver Training Center, Ind., on July 14, 2009. White and his team will be responsible for all management operations on the post. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. William E. Henry, Indiana National Guard)
National Journal
Rachel Roubein and James Oliphant
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Rachel Roubein and James Oliphant
July 24, 2014, 4:09 p.m.

When Texas Gov. Rick Perry this week an­nounced he was send­ing 1,000 Na­tion­al Guard troops to his state’s bor­der with Mex­ico to deal with the child-mi­grant crisis, crit­ics — in­clud­ing the White House — dis­missed it as a polit­ic­al stunt.

Josh Earn­est, the White House spokes­man, termed it a “sym­bol­ic” move in­ten­ded to “gen­er­ate head­lines” and said that if Perry was ser­i­ous about stem­ming the flow of mi­grants at the bor­der, he’d sup­port com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion re­form in Con­gress.

And oth­ers ar­gued that it sent an un­ne­ces­sar­ily fear­some mes­sage to the ar­riv­ing mi­grants, with uni­formed sol­diers stand­ing guard on the bor­der, guns in hand. “So, they’re flee­ing men and wo­men with guns in Cent­ral Amer­ica, and we’re go­ing to re­ceive them with men and wo­men with guns here,” said Demo­crat­ic Rep. Lu­is Gu­ti­er­rez of Illinois. “They’re chil­dren. They’re not in­vad­ing.”

Some­where along the line, however, the ad­min­is­tra­tion began to view the Guard as more than a prop. A day after Earn­est’s re­marks, Pres­id­ent Obama dis­patched a team to the bor­der to eval­u­ate wheth­er ad­ded troops could, in fact, help ease the strain on over­taxed fed­er­al re­sources deal­ing with the stream of un­ac­com­pan­ied minors trav­el­ing from Cent­ral Amer­ica.

Yet even if the White House and Re­pub­lic­ans agree that Guard troops should be sent to the bor­der, there’s little con­sensus on what ex­actly they’d be em­powered to do.

There’s pre­ced­ent for such a move. In 2006, the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion mo­bil­ized the Guard to help with se­cur­ity ef­forts while 6,000 new Bor­der Patrol agents were brought on­line. Former Bush of­fi­cials say the troops played a valu­able role dur­ing their two-year de­ploy­ment.

“Clearly if they are prop­erly de­ployed as part of a strategy, they can be very help­ful,” said Jayson Ahern, who served as deputy and then act­ing com­mis­sion­er of U.S. Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion from 2007 to 2009. “What’s not help­ful is un­co­ordin­ated de­ploy­ments that don’t have a good plan and that aren’t well thought-out.”

The key in that case, Ahern said, was that it was the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, through the De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cur­ity and the Pentagon, mo­bil­iz­ing the Guard, not in­di­vidu­al states. The troops were “prop­erly planned, sanc­tioned, and un­der su­per­vi­sion and the dir­ec­tion of the Bor­der Patrol,” he said. “From a train­ing stand­point, there’s very strict lim­it­a­tions on what the Guard can and can­not do, par­tic­u­larly around people.”

Guard troops can’t step in the shoes of fed­er­al of­ficers to en­force im­mig­ra­tion policy, they can’t con­duct law-en­force­ment activ­it­ies, and only in rare cases can they make ar­rests. “If they, solely, stopped and de­tained someone, I think that would be a stretch of their au­thor­ity,” Ahern said.

Perry’s of­fice seems to get that. Trav­is Con­sid­ine, a Perry spokes­man, said the Texas troops aren’t be­ing sent to deal with the child-mi­grant crisis at all, but to help com­bat “crime and car­tel activ­ity that is res­ult­ing from our un­se­cured bor­der.” The Guard, he said, “will be work­ing side-by-side with law en­force­ment, who can de­tain in­di­vidu­als and refer them to the ap­pro­pri­ate fed­er­al au­thor­it­ies.”

“Crim­in­als,” he ad­ded, “are tak­ing ad­vant­age of the fact that the Bor­der Patrol is be­ing di­ver­ted from the law-en­force­ment du­ties to help with hu­man­it­ari­an aid.”

The Texas Guard will re­main un­der Perry’s dir­ec­tion in what ap­pears to be the kind of the un­co­ordin­ated re­sponse that Ahern says should be avoided. At the same time, Obama’s team, com­prised of of­fi­cials from DHS and the De­fense De­part­ment, will de­term­ine wheth­er the ad­min­is­tra­tion needs to mo­bil­ize the Guard. And if it does, the troops are ex­pec­ted to serve much of the same role they served in 2006-07, back­ing up the Bor­der Patrol and per­form­ing ad­min­is­trat­ive tasks.

De­ploy­ing the Guard to “as­sist with the hu­man­it­ari­an care and needs” of chil­dren trav­el­ing without a par­ent is a com­pon­ent of a House Re­pub­lic­an work­ing group’s re­com­mend­a­tions to ad­dress the crisis.

Led by Rep. Kay Granger of Texas, the work­ing group doesn’t have an es­tim­ate on the num­ber of troops it would de­ploy. It’d be a short-term as­sign­ment, Rep. Mario Diaz-Bal­art of Flor­ida said Thursday, to re­lieve a “stretched-thin” Bor­der Patrol.

When an un­ac­com­pan­ied minor comes for­ward — or is ap­pre­hen­ded — the Bor­der Patrol agent takes the child to the nearest sta­tion. Then, his or her age is de­term­ined. An im­mig­ra­tion back­ground check is per­formed. The child’s home con­su­late is no­ti­fied, a screen­ing is per­formed, a file is cre­ated, re­mov­al pro­ceed­ings be­gin, and a bed is re­ques­ted from the Of­fice of Refugee Re­set­tle­ment, said Mi­chael Re­illy, a Bor­der Patrol as­sist­ant chief.

And the time it takes may vary.

“As an agent, you can be very savvy at [the] pro­cess and it won’t take you as long, where some agents aren’t com­puter savvy,” Re­illy said.

The House GOP’s idea to send in the Na­tion­al Guard is aimed at al­le­vi­at­ing ad­min­is­trat­ive stress for Bor­der Patrol agents.

“The real­ity is that the Bor­der Patrol is do­ing all these ad­min­is­trat­ive things deal­ing with these kids, so it’s not al­low­ing them to be out there do­ing their job,” Diaz-Bal­art said. “So we use the Na­tion­al Guard in or­der to then al­low the Bor­der Patrol to do what they’re sup­posed to do.”

Some mem­bers say that al­though they worry a de­ploy­ment would “mil­it­ar­ize” the bor­der, they can see be­ne­fits in the short term. “So they come in and provide the sup­port like they’ve al­ways done in the past, and they provide hu­man­it­ari­an care,” said Demo­crat­ic Rep. Henry Cuel­lar of Texas. “For those two spe­cif­ic pur­poses, they can come in.”

“Frankly, they’re not trained for this par­tic­u­lar mis­sion,” ad­ded Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla. “I think they can, on the short term, do some things to help just be­cause there’s such a man­power strain. But long-term, I don’t like the idea of mil­it­ar­iz­ing the bor­der, and I don’t think that’s what the Na­tion­al Guard is for.”

Com­mit­ting the Guard to the bor­der could come with a polit­ic­al risk, re­in­for­cing in the pub­lic’s mind that the mi­grant crisis stems from in­ad­equate se­cur­ity at the bor­der rather than from minors flee­ing Cent­ral Amer­ica’s vi­ol­ence. A CNN poll re­leased Thursday un­der­scored that risk, show­ing that Amer­ic­ans in­creas­ingly view bor­der se­cur­ity as the most im­port­ant as­pect of the im­mig­ra­tion de­bate.

Cost is also cer­tain to be an is­sue. Perry has already been cri­ti­cized in Texas for send­ing the troops on a mis­sion that is es­tim­ated to cost the state $12 mil­lion a month. The gov­ernor has said that he ex­pects to be re­im­bursed by DHS, but Ahern said that isn’t likely be­cause Perry’s ac­tions wer­en’t part of a great­er fed­er­al re­sponse.

Obama’s $3.7 bil­lion fund­ing re­quest is already be­ing whittled down by the Sen­ate and the House — and it ori­gin­ally called for just $1.1 bil­lion to be routed to an already-strained DHS, which must cov­er the costs of any Guard de­ploy­ment by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment.

Back from a three-day fun­drais­ing tour on the West Coast, Obama is sched­uled Fri­day to meet with lead­ers of Hon­dur­as, Guatem­ala, and El Sal­vador to dis­cuss fur­ther steps the ad­min­is­tra­tion can take to deal with the mi­grant crisis.

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