WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is planning to reduce the number of National Guard troops deployed at the U.S. border with Mexico, the spokesman for a Texas congressman said Tuesday.
The force will be reduced from 1,200 troops starting next year, said Mike Rosen, spokesman for Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas. The exact number of National Guard personnel that will stay on the border is unclear, Rosen said.
The remaining troops are expected to be in place until the end of 2012 and will focus on intelligence operations, Rosen said. McCaul's office said he was told about the change in strategy by an administration official.
Neither the Defense nor Homeland Security departments immediately responded to requests for comment Tuesday.
President Barack Obama ordered the troops to the border last year to help Border Patrol agents watch for illegal crossers and drug and human smugglers. The first of the 1,200 troops arrived in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas in August 2010, and were expected to be in place for about a year. Earlier this year, Obama extended that deployment.
The Guard troops don't have arrest power and have spent much of their time monitoring the 2,000-mile border and alerting Border Patrol agents to suspicious activity. The deployment was to have ended at the end of the year.
The current deployment is the second such troop deployment on the southern border.
From 2006 to 2008, under the direction of President George W. Bush, thousands of troops worked along the Mexican border as part of "Operation Jumpstart." That deployment was designed to help free up Border Patrol agents to focus on border security while the agency hired thousands of new agents.
When Bush deployed the Guard troops there were just over 11,000 agents along the southern border. There are now more than 18,500 agents in place.
It's unclear exactly why Obama has decided to extend the deployment but shrink the number of troops.
But the cost for the deployments has been a concern to lawmakers.
The Defense Department has been footing the bill for the Guard troops and according to the Government Accountability Office has spent about $1.35 billion for deployments under both the Bush and Obama administrations.
The number of arrests of illegal border crossers along the southern border is also at a near 40-year low. The Border Patrol said agents made 327,577 arrests at the Mexican border during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.
Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat, said given the drop in border arrests and ongoing federal budget woes, the change in strategy appears to him to be a smart use of limited resources.
"I think it's wise for us to see how can we use our dollars in a more efficient way, even it if means less National Guard troops (at the border)," Cuellar said.
Congressional Republicans who have repeatedly said the administration is not doing enough to secure the border with Mexico said Tuesday that reducing the number of personnel along the border won't help the situation.
Rep. Peter King, chairman of the House homeland security committee, said while he supports extending the deployment the strategy is an "ad hoc approach" that needs to be remedied.
"The administration must also develop and present a long-term strategy for securing the border, as opposed to this current ad hoc approach," the New York Republican said.
McCaul, who sits on King's committee, said shifting to a more intelligence-driven mission is fine, but added that he worried about reducing the number of troops.
"This appears to be a step in the right direction toward technology- and intelligence-based efforts to secure the border, which I have been advocating for years," McCaul said. "However, I am concerned that the administration is decreasing overall manpower. While the National Guard is not the long-term solution and has its hands tied, they are necessary until we permanently increase our Border Patrol presence."