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Cost prohibitive: State action on border security unlikely

As Arizona battles with the federal government over the authority to enforce immigration law, many residents and lawmakers are challenging the state to send National Guard troops to secure the border and cover the costs of completing a border wall.

It’s unclear whether Arizona has any legal standing to take over operations on the border, but one thing is certain: The state lacks the money needed to pay for any large-scale border security efforts, and the National Guard would need more troops than it has now to effectively stop illegal border crossers.

After two years of budget cuts, Arizona officials can barely figure out how to keep teachers in the classroom and prisoners behind bars. The hundreds of millions, or maybe even billions of dollars, it would take to try to seal the border means Arizona likely will be stuck waiting for the federal government to take action.

Proposals range from building a border wall to outright militarization of the border. But the state has already cut more than $2 billion from its budget, raised sales taxes and sold its Capitol buildings just to pay its bills, and the massive price tag for sealing border likely would be unaffordable under any circumstance.

The most common demand, echoed by numerous lawmakers and political candidates, is for Gov. Jan Brewer to deploy the Arizona National Guard to the state’s 376-mile border with Mexico.

Sen. Russell Pearce, the primary sponsor of the state’s new immigration law, said Brewer has done a lot to fight illegal immigration. But S1070 deals only with internal enforcement of illegal immigration laws, and the Mesa Republican said the governor now must turn her attention to the border.

“The governor could do much, much more,” the Mesa Republican said. “Put the National Guard down there … in a military role on the border.”

When deployed to the border, National Guard troops traditionally have played a supporting role, providing surveillance and intelligence, and taking over duties such as vehicle maintenance for the U.S. Border Patrol, which frees up more agents to police the border region.

National Guardsmen are allowed to fire their weapons in self defense, but otherwise do not engage anyone they encounter. Instead, they call Border Patrol to report suspicious activity.

Pearce doesn’t want a repeat of Operation Jump Start, the 2006-2008 National Guard border security operation that sent about 6,000 troops to the four states that border Mexico. About 2,400 troops were deployed in Arizona, but they were not allowed to patrol the border.

Pearce and other illegal immigration hawks have insisted that the only way for the state to make a difference on the border is to order troops to actually enforce immigration law and apprehend illegal border crossers and drug traffickers on their own. The cost of doing so, however, has kept many policymakers, including the governor, from supporting such a proposal.

“The ability to sustain a force of any size requires federal funding, and (Brewer) remains very concerned about attempting any major deployment of troops using only state funds,” said Tasya Peterson, a spokeswoman for the governor.

Legislative budget staff has estimated that it would cost $10 million to deploy 85 National Guard troops for one year. That number might vary depending on salary increases and whether the estimate included housing or vehicle costs, said Arizona National Guard spokesman Lt. Valentine Castillo.
Brewer wants the federal government to send 3,000 guardsmen to the border, a deployment that would likely cost Arizona more than $350 million it footed the bill itself.

Pearce doesn’t want to stop with 3,000 troops. He said the state should use every available guardsman, and organize a volunteer militia, as outlined in the Arizona Constitution, if there aren’t enough troops to meet the state’s needs. Pearce said the money spent by the state to secure the border will be offset by the money it saves by no longer paying for education, health care, incarceration or other costs associated with the estimated 500,000 illegal immigrants in Arizona.
Even if the plan cost $1 billion or more, Pearce said, the savings would quickly make up for it.

“Compare that to the cost of not enforcing it,” Pearce said. “The cost of not enforcing it is billions.”
Other proposals to create new state police task forces dedicated to fighting border crime would face similar financial roadblocks. The Arizona Department of Public Safety, like other state agencies, is under a hiring freeze because of the budget crunch.

House Speaker Kirk Adams, a Mesa Republican, said he has considered using the Department of Public Safety for such a “demonstration project,” primarily to draw attention to border issues and provide a test case for states that want to take border security into their own hands.

“Moments like these call for creativity,” Adams said. “When you look at the presence of law enforcement and Border Patrol in places like Nogales, where they have seen crossings come down, and they’ve seen crime come down, you come out here (Douglas) and there is nothing.”

Another popular idea is for Arizona to finish building the border fence that was started by federal government. But the Congressional Budget Office in 2007 estimated that a double set of steel fences lining the border would cost about $1.5 million per mile. With nearly 400 miles of border to cover, Arizona could end up paying more than a half-billion dollars to build it from end to end.

The state would also have to get permission from private property owners, federal agencies and Native American tribes that own and control much of the land along the border. Getting approval from agencies such as the U.S Bureau of Land Management and Department of Interior might be difficult given the federal government’s hostility towards Arizona’s efforts to crack down on illegal immigration.
“I wouldn’t rule out a small amount of state fencing. We can’t afford too much,” said Rep. John Kavanagh, a staunch opponent of illegal immigration. “The limitation is money. To do the job right … you’re probably talking over $1 billion.”

The federal government is prohibited from using the military for internal law enforcement in most situations by the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, but governors are not limited in the same way, according to Arizona National Guard spokesman Sgt. Edward Balaban. Governors often use the National Guard to maintain peace, restore order or enforce the law in emergencies, such as in Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina and in Los Angeles after the 1992 riots.

“Unless they’re federalized, the governor is the commander in chief of all state forces. So the governor can send the guard anywhere she wants in the state,” Balaban said. “Posse Comitatus is federal.”

Kavanagh said Arizona should do whatever it can to “shame the federal government” into meeting its obligations on the border, including a National Guard deployment. But the guard has manpower limitations that would restrict Arizona’s options, he said.

Balaban said the state has about 5,200 Army guardsmen and about 2,500 Air Force guardsmen. The guard usually has 800-1,000 of those troops deployed overseas at any given time, largely in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Kavanagh, a Fountain Hills Republican who has been among the most vocal supporters of Arizona’s new immigration law, said the governor could still send National Guard troops to the border, though it likely couldn’t order a large enough deployment to have a major impact.

“I would rather characterize it as somewhere between symbolic and effective,” Kavanagh said. “We can do something, but we can’t secure the whole border.”

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