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Bush declares war at the border

May 19, 2006 | Page 5

NICOLE COLSON reports on George Bush's proposal to militarize the border.

GEORGE W. BUSH is planning to send thousands of National Guard soldiers to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Their mission: stop people from entering the U.S. in search of a better life. That mission will fail--but Bush's plan will add to the nightmare of abuse and violence endured by undocumented immigrants.

Calling on Congress to provide funding for "dramatic improvements in manpower and technology at the border," Bush announced plans for up to 6,000 National Guard soldiers to be stationed at points along the border for as long as a year.

His prime-time TV address May 15 also featured other hyped-up "border control" measures like doubling the number of border-control guards, the use of unmanned patrol drones, and plans for a "tamper-proof" identification card for immigrant workers--at an added cost of at least $1.9 billion, on top of an already bloated $7.3 billion annual budget for border control.

There is already a war at the border. Beginning with the Clinton years, the federal government has ramped up spending on border control to new highs.

Clinton's "Operation Gatekeeper" involved a series of militarized "improvements" to border control, including a sharp increase in border agents, underground sensors, infrared night scopes and large sections of fortress-like walls with flood lighting. Using September 11 as an excuse, the Bush administration escalated border security to even greater heights.

Rather than stop undocumented immigrants, these measures simply forced people to take increasingly desperate chances--crossing farther out in remote desert areas or facing exploitation at the hands of human smugglers.

Immigrants have paid for the bipartisan border-security binge with their lives. Since 1994, more than 4,000 undocumented immigrants are estimated to have died while attempting to cross. And the death toll is rising--last year alone, the Border Patrol reported 473 deaths.

The administration's plan to send soldiers to the border is already in motion. The week before Bush's speech, the House approved a measure allowing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to assign military personnel under certain circumstances to help the Homeland Security Department with border security.

Administration officials insisted that Bush's plan wouldn't "militarize" the border, but even Mexican President Vicente Fox, Bush's longtime ally, voiced criticism of the proposal for precisely that reason.

Currently, the military plays a fairly small role at the border--with a small number of National Guard and other troops working mainly on "counter-narcotics" operations. The move to put thousands of National Guard troops on the border is an appeal to the Republican right, which supports an even more vicious version of immigration legislation than the Bush administration is pushing for.

While some Democrats criticized the Bush plan for putting a burden on an already "overstretched" military, on the whole, they had little criticism.

Democratic New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, for example, complained that the administration had not first consulted with him and other border-state governors. "While the immediate deployment of troops may create a short-term fix, it creates further problems and concerns regarding our National Guard troops," he said.

But the drive to militarize the border was helped along by Richardson himself, along with fellow Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano of Arizona, when the two last year claimed that undocumented immigrants were overrunning their states' borders--and declared a "state of emergency."

Napolitano, in fact, seemed ready to applaud Bush's plan to station troops on the border. The National Guard deployment "is basically what she has been asking for," Jeanine L'Ecuyer, Napolitano's spokesperson, told the Associated Press.

While Democrats play politics with people's lives, Bush's border militarization will send a clear signal to anti-immigrant vigilantes like the Minuteman Project.

Bush's call for increased funding for state and local law enforcement to participate in "targeted enforcement missions" at the border is already playing out, for example, in places like Maricopa County, Ariz.--with predictably racist results.

Last week, Maricopa's Sheriff Joe Arpaio, known for housing prison inmates in tents and forcing them onto chain gangs, formed a 250-member posse to track undocumented immigrants through the desert. "I'm going to catch as many as I can and throw them in my jail," Arpaio told the Associated Press, adding, "And the jails are not that nice." In another interview with Fox News, Arpaio vowed that he would "put tents up from here to Mexico if I have to keep these illegals incarcerated."

The posse, made up of existing sheriff's deputies as well as members of the department's reserve of unpaid volunteers, has already begun its searches--some aided by the use of a helicopter, floodlights and night-vision gear. Immigrant rights activists say posse members are targeting anyone who appears to be Latino.

As Elias Bermudez, a talk show host for a local Spanish-language radio station and president of a group that helped organize recent Arizona marches calling for federal immigration reform explained, "Everybody is in fear. They've created an atmosphere of despair, an atmosphere of pain and suffering. There are kids going to school thinking Dad might not come home tonight."

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