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Southwest Divided on Troops for U.S.-Mexico Border

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Despite the president's claim that he's not militarizing the border, some people think it's already militarized. Others think it's not militarized enough. And the fact is National Guard troops have been on the border for a while.

NPR's Ted Robbins looks at that presence and what people in the southwest think of the idea of more troops.

TED ROBBINS reporting:

Shortly after 9/11, Arizona National Guard troops began helping U.S. Customs officers search and x-ray cargo trucks at busy ports of entry.

(Soundbite of Customs officers)

Unidentified Man: X-ray is coming on. Stay clear.

ROBBINS: More recently, troops have also been aiding the Border Patrol in other ways, like monitoring video from infrared cameras installed on poles along busy stretches of the border. They look for groups of illegal crossers at night and relay the information to Border Patrol agents. So far, it's only been a couple of hundred troops. But 6,000 troops, even in support roles, is a different story.

Jennifer Allen of the Border Action Network, an immigrant rights group, says more troops will turn border communities into war zones.

Ms. JENNIFER ALLEN (Executive Director, Border Action Network): Their soldiers are trained to look at people as an enemy. And we're talking about six million people that live on the U.S. side of the U.S./Mexico border. We're not enemies. We're people driving to work, going to the grocery store, hanging out with our friends on the front porch.

ROBBINS: Allen thinks conflict is inevitable if thousands of troops come to the border. Chris Simcox thinks troops could prevent conflict, but only if far more of them are stationed on the border. Simcox is co-founder of the Minutemen Civil Defense Project.

Mr. CHRIS SIMCOX (Co-Founder, Minutemen Civil Defense Project Corps): The president's plan is weak. And I think I'm still appalled, that four and half years after September 11th, that people along the border with Mexico still live in terror every day. They live in fear for their lives and their safety, and that we have millions of people breaching that border.

ROBBINS: Simcox says the government needs at least 38,000 additional troops or Border Patrol agents to stop the flow of illegal immigrants. In between those two viewpoints, are those who will command any National Guard troops within their borders: the governors. And governors are politicians.

In Arizona, Governor Janet Napolitano is running for re-election. She is a Democrat who's been squeezed by a Republican legislature to do more to fight illegal immigration. Napolitano says she has long supported stronger border security. She likes the president's plan.

Governor JANET NAPOLITANO (Democrat, Arizona): I think he touched on everything that I've been saying. More security at the border, including manpower; but also technology - UAVs, drones, smart fencing - a whole toolbox of things that can enhance the manpower we use.

ROBBINS: In New Mexico, Governor Bill Richardson says he's disappointed. Richardson, a Democratic governor with a Democratic legislature, points out the president promised more Border Patrol officers six months ago, and they've yet to arrive. In California, Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger calls President Bush's National Guard plan, A Band-Aid solution, not the permanent solution we need. That's the main disagreement in Washington, border enforcement only, versus legalization and guest workers.

With increased presence, the Border Patrol says it is gradually shutting corridors of illegal immigration. Minuteman founder, Chris Simcox, says right now, that's all that matters.

Mr. SIMCOX: We need to force this government to prove to us, that we mean something, when it comes to homeland security. Secure the borders, first. Then we'll start figuring out what to do with the people that are here.

ROBBINS: Illegal immigration has been reduced in urban areas, like San Diego. But over the last decade, despite fences and more than 10,000 Border Patrol agents, there's been no overall slowing of border crossers. It's just become more dangerous and expensive to cross.

Jennifer Allen of the Border Action Network.

Ms. ALLEN: Even in looking at Border Patrol's own goals, of trying to deter immigration numbers, and to shift routes out into more difficult areas, in the hopes that migrants will no longer make that decision to come to the U.S., it's not working.

ROBBINS: Allen says immigration reform must start by making it easier for people to immigrate legally. But politically, President Bush has made the calculation that the only way to get comprehensive immigration reform, is to increase troop presence on the border at the same time.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As supervising editor for Arts and Culture at NPR based at NPR West in Culver City, Ted Robbins plans coverage across NPR shows and online, focusing on TV at a time when there's never been so much content. He thinks "arts and culture" encompasses a lot of human creativity — from traditional museum offerings to popular culture, and out-of-the-way people and events.