WASHINGTON — National Guard troops will head to the U.S.-Mexico border Aug. 1 for a yearlong deployment to keep a lookout for illegal border crossers and smugglers and help in criminal investigations, federal officials said Monday.
The troops will be armed but can use their weapons only to protect themselves, Gen. Craig McKinley, chief of the National Guard Bureau, told a Pentagon news conference. The troops will undergo initial training and be fully deployed along the nearly 2,000-mile southern border by September.
The announcement provides details on how the government will implement President Barack Obama's May decision to bolster border security and comes as drug-related violence has escalated in Mexico, where several people died over the weekend in a car bombing and in a separate massacre at a private party. It also comes as the U.S. debate over illegal immigration has intensified in an election year.
"The border is more secure and more resourced than it has ever been, but there is more to be done," said Alan Bersin, commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, part of the Homeland Security Department.
The 1,200 troops will be distributed among four border states, with Arizona getting 524; Texas, 250; California, 224 and New Mexico, 72. Another 130 would be assigned to a national liaison office.
Bersin also said the Homeland Security Department will provide six more aircraft, including helicopters, to the border. He said at least 300 Customs and Border Protection agents and inspection officers would be sent to the Tucson area, along with mobile surveillance vans and additional technology.
"It will help," Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, a Democrat, said Monday in Santa Fe, N.M., where he was attending the annual meeting of the Conference of Western Attorneys General. "Manpower clearly has been deficient. Technology has been somewhat deficient, and they're bolstering that."
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, said the deployment isn't enough "nor tied to a strategy to comprehensively defeat the increasingly violent drug- and alien-smuggling cartels that operate in Arizona on a daily basis."
Republican Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl of Arizona said Obama's administration was taking a step in the right direction but a lot more needs to be done.
U.S. Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick and Gabrielle Giffords, both D-Ariz., separately called the announced actions welcome but insufficient.
"This is the kind of action we want from the administration — not suing the state," Kirkpatrick said, referring to the Department of Justice's challenge to the new Arizona immigration enforcement law. "However, we should continue to move forward with a much larger commitment of National Guard troops right away and with an expansion of the Border Patrol to strengthen security for the long run."
Texas Gov. Rick Perry also criticized the troops as "grossly insufficient" for the Texas border in a letter to the administration last week.
President George W. Bush deployed 6,000 National Guard troops to the border in June 2006, also a midterm election year. The troops were part of his effort to persuade the Republican-led Congress to pass his immigration reform proposals that included a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. That deployment ended in July 2008.
McKinley said even though the four border states are contributing 54,000 troops to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they still have a sizable number available for other deployments or disaster response. More can be deployed at state cost if governors wish, but the 1,200 are being paid for by the federal government, he said.
"Right now I cannot see a case where we would be overextending the National Guard for this effort," he said.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement also is beefing up its presence in Arizona, said John Morton, the Homeland Security Department assistant secretary overseeing the agency.
Morton said ICE is opening a new office in Ajo, Ariz., to focus exclusively on cross-border crime and to deploy a specialized investigative team in Douglas, near where an Arizona rancher was shot and killed while surveying his ranch on the border.
Also, the agency will send ICE lawyers to U.S. attorneys offices to help prosecute felons who illegally re-enter the country after deportation. It also will increase the number of ICE agents in Mexico to 40, making it the largest of ICE's 63 offices in 44 countries.
"We are placing a particular emphasis on the Tucson sector in Arizona, an area favored by smugglers and the principal point of illegal entry into the United States along the southwest border," Morton said.
Associated Press writers Susan Montoya Bryan in Santa Fe, N.M., and Paul Davenport in Phoenix contributed to this report.