PHOENIX—At one time, only the staunchest advocates for cracking down on illegal immigration backed the idea of putting National Guard troops along the porous Arizona-Mexico border.
But now the idea that was rejected in the past as being outside the National Guard’s responsibilities has the blessings of Arizona’s Democratic governor and cleared half the Republican-led Legislature. The public’s frustration with Arizona’s role as the nation’s busiest illegal-entry point has breathed new life into the idea, with a recent poll showing that nearly two-thirds of voters favor it.
“It has shifted to the mainstream political debate,” said Jennifer Allen, director of the Border Action Network, an immigrant-rights group that opposes the idea. “It’s disturbing.”
Proponents say the National Guard’s assistance in federal immigration efforts could help reduce border-related crime and make it more difficult for the tens of thousands of people who try to cross into Arizona illegally each year.
Critics say the National Guard’s lack of training in immigration law could lead to racial profiling, and stationing troops at the border could hurt the morale of those who have already served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Maj. Paul Aguirre, a spokesman for the Arizona National Guard, declined to comment on whether sending troops to the border would hurt recruiting or retention.
Gov. Janet Napolitano has proposed extending the National Guard’s border efforts to have an unspecified number of troops work at crossing points, assist with cargo inspection and operate cameras and mobile-observation points so they can report suspicious activity. The troops would likely remain there for several months.
A New Mexico lawmaker proposed a $30 million plan this year for his state’s National Guard to help federal authorities secure the border, but the measure never made it out of committee.
One of two border-troop bills now in the Legislature, a proposal by Republican Rep. John Allen of Scottsdale, would require Napolitano to send troops to the border and put $5 million of state money into that effort.
Napolitano said she’s not opposed to using state money for the plan, but pointed to the possible perils of taking that route. “Once we start using state money, the likelihood of the federal government picking up its fair share goes way down,” Napolitano said.
Allen said his proposal, which won approval from the state House and awaits action in the Senate, is meant to hold Napolitano accountable for proposing the idea and serve as a wake-up call for the federal government to lessen the state’s immigration problems.