Washington President Bush will call for thousands of National Guard troops to be deployed along the Mexican border in support of patrols aimed at keeping out illegal immigrants, White House officials said Sunday on the eve of an Oval Office address announcing the plan.
White House aides worked into the night Sunday to iron out details of the proposal and allay concerns among lawmakers that using troops to man the border would further burden an overextended military.
Two White House officials said Bush would propose using troops as a stopgap measure while the Border Patrol builds up its resources. The troops would play a supportive role to Border Patrol agents, who would maintain primary responsibility for physically guarding the border.
The officials spoke on a condition of anonymity before the address at 7 p.m. tonight. The officials would not say how many troops Bush wanted to use, except that it would be in the thousands but less than an estimate of as many as 10,000 being discussed at the Pentagon.
Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, would not confirm that using National Guard troops was the plan but said it was one of the options the president was considering. But he described the same scenario.
"It's not about militarization of the border," Hadley said on CNN's "Late Edition." "It's about assisting the civilian border patrol in doing their job, providing intelligence, providing support, logistics support and training and these sorts of things."
Bush's National Guard plan is aimed at winning support for broader immigration reform from conservatives in Congress. Bush's main goal is to allow foreigners to get temporary work permits to take low-paying jobs - an idea favored by the business community. But many conservatives want a tougher approach on illegal immigrants trying to sneak into the country.
About 100 National Guard troops are serving on the border to assist with counter-drug operations, heavy equipment support and other functions.
"I think what it would be is simply expanding the kind of thing that has already been done in the past in order to provide a bit of a stopgap as the Border Patrol build up their capacity to deal with this challenge," Hadley said.
Bush gave the same message to Mexican President Vicente Fox, who called Sunday to express concern about what he called the possibility of a "militarized" border between the two nations. Bush assured Fox that any military support would be administrative and logistical and would come from the National Guard and not the Army, according to a news release from Fox's office.
Reaction to plan
Criticism of the National Guard plan came Sunday from Democrats, but also an important Republican negotiator in the immigration debate - Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. He said National Guard troops cannot secure the border over the long term and that he does not think it is wise even in the short term.
President to address nation
President Bush will speak at 7 p.m. today from the Oval Office about his plan to use National Guard troops along the Mexican border to keep out illegal immigrants. Two White House officials said Bush would propose using troops as a stopgap measure while the Border Patrol builds up its resources.
"We've got National Guard members on their second, third and fourth tours in Iraq," Hagel said. "We have stretched our military as thin as we have ever seen it in modern times. And what in the world are we talking about here, sending a National Guard that we may not have any capacity to send up to or down to protect borders? That's not their role."
Hagel said the bill under debate in the Senate that he helped write would double the 12,000-strong Border Patrol force over the next five years. "That's the way to fix it, not further stretching the National Guard," he said on ABC's "This Week."
Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., said there may be a need for troops to fill in while the Border Patrol is bolstered. But he did not seem confident that the National Guard could take on the extra duty.
"We have stretched these men and women so thin, so thin, because of the bad mistakes done by the civilians in the military here, that I wonder how they're going to be able to do it," Biden said, also on ABC.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said he supported using the National Guard on the Mexican border. He said lawmakers who doubt that the National Guard, whose members have served for years in Iraq and went to the Gulf Coast after last summer's hurricanes, could take on border patrol duty are "whining" and "moaning."
"We've got to secure our borders," Frist said on CNN's "Late Edition." "We hear it from the American people. We've got millions of people coming across that border. First and foremost, secure the border, whatever it takes. Everything else we've done has failed. We've got to face that. And so we need to bring in, I believe, the National Guard."
Debate on reform bill
Frist said the full Senate planned to begin debating the immigration bill Monday and that it would take up to two weeks to pass.
Senators would have to resolve any differences with the House version of the bill, which did not address the guest worker issue but increases penalties for illegal immigration activities and funds a 700-mile border fence.
The statement from Fox's office and another from the White House said the two presidents agreed that immigration reform be comprehensive - meaning that it go beyond the tough punitive measures that some conservatives are promoting to stem the flow of immigrants.
White House spokeswoman Maria Tamburri said Bush made clear to Fox that "the United States considered Mexico a friend and that what is being considered is not militarization of the border, but support of border capabilities on a temporary basis by the National Guard."