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200 National Guard members to patrol Mexican border

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MN Guard troops to border
Gov. Tim Pawlenty announces 200 Minnesota National Guard members will head to the Southwest to help patrol the U.S. border with Mexico.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

Gov. Pawlenty says the National Guard members will be sent to New Mexico in mid-July.  He says the initial group of 200 will be volunteers and are expected to serve for six months.  He says any future call-ups will be staffed with a mix of volunteers and units scheduled for annual training missions.  

Pawlenty, who has made illegal immigration a campaign issue this year, continued his call for increased border security and enforcement of immigration laws in the United States. 

"Let's be blunt. We have a crisis on the border," Pawlenty said. "The activities and the efforts that have been made in recent years and decades in the United States have been a relative failure, in terms of enforcing and preventing illegal immigration."

Pawlenty's comments come as Congress and President Bush grapple with increasing border security and providing protections for some illegal immigrants who already live and work in the U.S. 

They'll be given missions to help identify people who are crossing the border.  They are not law enforcement.

In May, the president called for 2,500 National Guard troops to patrol the borders of California, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.  Several states have sent troops, but the numbers have been well short of the president's initial goal.  

Pawlenty says he didn't receive pressure from the White House or Defense Department to mobilize the troops, only a request for help from the chief of the National Guard Bureau.

"I think they expected this to fall into line easier and quicker then actually took place," the governor said. "So there was a heightened effort by Gen. Blum and others to put [out] a call for help."

Pawlenty says he'll maintain his administration's "command and control" authority over the troops while they're in New Mexico.  He says he has the right to recall them if they're needed in Minnesota.  

One of Pawlenty's possible opponents in the November election criticized the plan.  State Sen. Becky Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, says the Minnesota National Guard is already stretched too thin.  

Nearly 3,000 Minnesota Guard members are currently serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom.  But the governor says Minnesota has more than enough National Guard members to handle a natural disaster or other serious event if one should occur.     

Maj. Gen. Larry Shellito, Adjutant General of the Minnesota National Guard, says Minnesota Guard members are expected to help the border patrol with support duties like monitoring the borders, repairing roads and building temporary housing.  He says Guard members will not be expected to arrest anyone caught crossing the border.

"They'll be given missions to help identify people who are crossing the border.  They are not law enforcement, so their mission will be to identify and to report to the proper authorities," said Shellito. "We are just giving them extra eyes and ears to complete their mission."

Shellito says the federal government will pay all of the mission expenses.  

While Pawlenty and other politicians say the troops are needed to prevent more immigrants from crossing the border illegally, one critic calls it a "militarization" of the border.  

Mariano Espinoza, executive director of the Minnesota Immigrant Freedom Network, also called the National Guard mobilization a "band-aid."  He wants Congress and President Bush to focus less on border security, and more on matters like increasing the number of guest worker visas.  Espinoza says that would allow more immigrants to work in the United States legally.  

"We need to fix the broken immigration system with comprehensive immigration reform and providing venues for people to come to this country.  Militarization is not the entire solution," Espinoza said.  "It could be one of the solutions, but not the entire solution."

To date, 16 states have pledged National Guard troops for border security efforts.