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California Leaders Cool to Bush's Guard Plan

LIANE HANSEN, host:

President Bush continues his push for immigration policy changes. This past week he announced a plan to send 6,000 National Guard troops to help secure the southwestern border with Mexico.

The governors of Texas and Arizona say they're in favor of using troops to support the border patrol, but the governors of New Mexico and California have concerns.

NPR's Mandalit del Barco has more on California's response.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO reporting:

It would be up to the governors of the four southwestern states to order their National Guard troops to the border. But in a news conference this week, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger called President Bush's proposal a mixed bag, and he said he didn't have enough information about the mission yet to decide whether or not to comply.

Governor ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (Republican, California): So what is it if they have 6,000 National Guards at the borders and they find out that the same amount of people are coming across? Does it mean he would increase it to 12,000, to 15,000, to 50,000? We don't know. I have no idea.

DEL BARCO: Schwarzenegger spent time talking to Mr. Bush's senior advisor and the head of Homeland Security. But he says he still has many questions about the logistics and funding of the mission. The governor suggested that putting Guard units along the border would be asking too much of troops recently back from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Gov. SCHWARZENEGGER: They're already, you know, overloaded and they should go back to their families, and also they should make money again and go back to their normal careers.

DEL BARCO: Still, by the end of the week, Schwarzenegger did say he might go along with the President's proposal only temporarily, if it would help prevent illegal immigration. But he emphasized that border security is a federal responsibility.

The Republican governor's caution is shared by both Democratic leaders in the legislature. State Senate President Don Perata ordered legislative hearings on the President's proposal and he pledged to freeze all $38 million of state money for the National Guard. Perata suggested the troops are needed to assist Californians during earthquakes, floods and fires, not for patrolling the border.

Mr. DON PERATA (California Senate President): The President of the United States is putting California residents in high jeopardy for political purposes of his own. This is a foreign policy matter. And he's doing it at the expense of California residents.

DEL BARCO: Furthermore, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez said the mission to, as he calls it, militarize the California-Mexico border is offensive.

Mr. FABIAN NUNEZ (Assembly Speaker): And you can try to justify by saying, well, we're not really sending them there to make any arrests. They're just there to serve as labor, to build a wall or put up a gate or whatever it is that President Bush wants them to do. The fact of the matter is their mere presence sends the message that we're in a state of war, and we're not in a state of war. It's the wrong message to send to the Mexican people.

DEL BARCO: But stationing the National Guard along the California-Mexico border is not new. About 300 troops are already there doing aerial and recognizance support for counter-narcotics agents. And they're even helping the Border Patrol build a border fence.

Still, Maj. John Siepmann, a spokesman for the California National Guard, wonders about any new mission.

Maj. JOHN SIEPMANN (California National Guard): We don't know how many personnel will be required. We do not know for how long. We certainly share the concerns of the Governor that whatever it is we end up doing down there does not have significant adverse impacts on our ability to respond during a state emergency and to provide mission-ready forces for our wartime mission.

DEL BARCO: As commander of the state's National Guard, it will be Schwarzenegger's decision whether or not to deploy more troops to the border. Republican Political Advisor Dan Schnur says, like the President, the Governor is playing a delicate balancing act on both sides of the immigration debate.

Mr. DAN SCHNUR (Republican Political Advisor): He's taken a very strong stance in favor of enhanced border security, but he's skeptical about the National Guard plan. He's pushing for a guest worker and an earned citizenship proposal, but he's made it clear he wants to stop well short of anything that would be considered amnesty.

DEL BARCO: On Friday, Schwarzenegger conferred with the other three Southwestern governors about the issue, but he says he won't make a decision until he hears more from the Department of Homeland Security.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.