WASHINGTON — Faced with growing pressure from southern states, the Bush administration wants the military to come up with ideas to help solve security problems along the U.S. border with Mexico.
In back-to-back moves this week, the Pentagon began exploring ways to lend support at the southern border, while the House on Thursday voted to allow the Homeland Security Department in limited cases to use soldiers in that region.
At the Pentagon, Paul McHale, the assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense, asked officials to offer options for the use of military resources and troops — particularly the National Guard — along the border with Mexico, according to defense officials familiar with the discussions.
The officials, who requested anonymity because the matter has not been made public, said there were no details yet on a defense strategy.
Thursday’s House vote allowed Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to assign military personnel under certain circumstances to help the Homeland Security Department with border security. The vote was 252-171, and the provision was added to a larger military measure.
The actions underscored the importance of the border and immigrations issues, yet were tentative enough to reflect worries about drawing the nation’s armed forces into a politically sensitive domestic role.
Southern lawmakers met this week with White House strategist Karl Rove for a discussion that included making greater use of National Guard troops to shore up border control.
The Senate is poised to pass legislation this month that would call for additional border security, a new guest worker program and provisions opening the way to eventual citizenship for many of the estimated 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants in the country.
“The Texas delegation is very concerned about the border and are pushing urgency,” said Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, who joined other Texas Republicans in a meeting with Rove this week. He said Rove was “very forthright” about border projects that Homeland Security is starting up, its current projects and what the needs are.
Rep. Ken Marchant, R-Texas, who also attended the meeting, said the lawmakers left “very encouraged.”
The search for a military solution strikes a familiar chord. After Hurricane Katrina, President Bush pushed for a stronger military role in disasters, saying the Pentagon was best able to launch massive operations on a moments notice.
Currently, the military plays a very limited role along the borders, but some armed forces have been used in the past to help battle drug traffickers. National Guard units, meanwhile, have been used at times by Southern and Western governors to provide assistance at border crossings.
Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano said the military help “is basically what she has been asking for,” spokeswoman Jeanine L’Ecuyer said. Napolitano has been asking the Pentagon to send more National Guard troops — but not regular military — to confront illegal immigration from Mexico. About 170 National Guard troops are helping in such efforts in the state now.
Similarly, Texas Gov. Rick Perry hadn’t specifically requested assistance from the military, but he liked the idea, according to spokeswoman Kathy Walt. “The assets are stretched thin, at least in Texas, because of the war on terror,” she said. “The governor would welcome any effort by the federal government in meeting its responsibility to secure our border.”
Defense officials said they have been asked to map out what military resources could be made available if needed, including options for using the National Guard under either state or federal control. The strategy also would explore the legal guidelines for use of the military on U.S. soil, the officials said.
The National Guard is generally under the control of the state governors, but Guard units can be federalized by the president, such as those sent to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Active duty military may not be used for law enforcement unless the president authorizes it.
Officials wrangled over the use of the active military during Hurricane Katrina, with some suggesting that troops be used for law enforcement to quell violence and looters in New Orleans. There were also suggestions that Bush federalize the National Guard there, but state officials opposed that proposal. In the end, neither move was made.
At its peak during Katrina, the military had about 22,000 active-duty troops in the Gulf region, along with about 50,000 National Guard troops operating under the state governors’ command. The active- duty military provided ships, helicopters, search-and-rescue aid, evacuations and other assistance.
Afterward, Bush asked Pentagon officials to review ways to give the military a bigger role in responding to major disasters.
Under the Civil War-era Posse Comitatus Act, federal troops are prohibited from performing law enforcement actions, such as making arrests, seizing property or searching people. In extreme cases, however, the president can invoke the Insurrection Act, also from the Civil War, which allows him to use active-duty or National Guard troops for law enforcement.