OLYMPIA – If Washington is asked to send National Guard troops to the Mexican border, the governor won’t compel anyone to take the assignment.
“I’m not going to force any National Guard member to go there,” said Gov. Chris Gregoire. “If I have volunteers who want to, we will support their request.”
President Bush wants 6,000 troops posted along the border in four southwest states during the next two years while thousands of new U.S. Border Patrol agents are hired and trained to capture illegal crossers.
The governors of those states, California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, signed agreements Thursday with the federal government to provide the first deployments of this effort starting this month.
Federal officials have not begun talks with Washington leaders on a similar pact.
“We have been involved in the process from the beginning,” said Maj. Phil Osterli, public affairs officer for the Washington National Guard. “We have not been asked by the Department of Defense to provide anybody.”
Washington has about 6,000 members of the Army National Guard and 2,200 in the Air National Guard, Osterli said.
Today, roughly 600 are deployed overseas in support of the global war on terror, most of them fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said. That total is down from a peak of nearly 4,400 in 2004.
Last year, nearly 600 Washington Guardsmen went to the Gulf Coast to assist in recovery efforts following Hurricane Katrina.
Bush outlined his plan in a May 15 national address. He called for rotating National Guard members from across the country for one-year deployment on the border of those four southwest states. Troops from states in the Gulf and Atlantic coasts areas are expected to be excluded to ensure they will be available in the event of another major hurricane.
This first agreement with the states prohibits Guardsmen from handling detainees but allows them to carry guns.
The president said – and his advisers reiterated in a May 24 hearing before the House Armed Services Committee – that the troops will not be involved in any direct law enforcement activity. They won’t be arresting suspected illegal crossers nor running any jails where they are held.
Bush said they will carry out duties like constructing fences, installing vehicle barriers, running surveillance systems and analyzing intelligence. The intent is to absorb duties of the existing raft of Border Patrol agents, so they can focus on nabbing illegals.
The federal plan is dubbed “Operation Jump Start.”
Gregoire said she is not opposed to it. She said she views it as a stopgap measure to boost border security. The long-term answer, she said, is a fully staffed and well trained Border Patrol.
Operation Jump Start will begin in coming days, with Arizona dispatching 300 troops to its southern border and New Mexico sending 50 Guardsmen to its border. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger committed 1,000 troops to his state’s border, starting July 15. Texas will act similarly, though no specific number of troops has been determined.
Reporter Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623 or email@example.com.