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What past administrations learned from sending troops to the border

President Trump said Thursday that he wants to send as many as 4,000 National Guard troops to secure the U.S.-Mexico border. While his plan has raised concerns, there is precedent from past administrations. John Yang speaks with former ICE acting director John Sandweg and former Department of Homeland Security adviser Theresa Cardinal Brown about decision to deploy troops, then and now.

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  • Jong Yang:

    As we reported earlier, the president says he want to send thousands of National Guard forces along the U.S. border with Mexico.

    While Mr. Trump's plan has raised concerns, there is precedent. Both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama sent troops to the southern front during their terms.

    We get two takes from experts involved in both of those deployments.

    John Sandweg worked at the Department of Homeland Security during the Obama administration. And Theresa Cardinal Brown advised the Bush administration's Department of Homeland Security.

    Welcome to you both.

    I want to ask each of you — and start with you, Theresa, about your decisions, the decisions made when under your administration, when you were working for the administration. George — President George W. Bush sent 6,000 troops to the border in 2006.

    What were you trying to accomplish then and what was the situation that prompted this decision, and how does it compare to today?

  • Theresa Cardinal Brown:

    So at that time, there was a very large number of apprehensions happening at the border, well over a million apprehensions a year.

    And a lot of it was happening in Arizona and basically overwhelming the ability of the Border Patrol to handle it at the time. We had bipartisan calls in Congress for sending troops to the border. We had bipartisan calls from governors along the border asking for support.

    DHS was in the process of ramping up additional hiring of Border Patrol. We had about 7,000 fewer agents at that time than there are now. And so this was seen as a way of assisting the Border Patrol, supporting them in their efforts and basically freeing up Border Patrol agents from some of these collateral duties, so that they could do more processing and apprehending of people at the border.

  • Jong Yang:

    And, John, in 2010, President Obama sent 12,000 troops or National Guard.

  • John Sandweg:

    Twelve hundred.

  • Jong Yang:

    Twelve hundred. I'm sorry, 1,200.

    What was the situation then and how does it compare to now?

  • John Sandweg:

    Well, similarly, we had a large number of intrusions into the United States, primarily at that time by people from Mexico.

    They were trying to evade capture. We also had just — Congress had just passed a bill giving us more — additional funds for more Border Patrol agents and more technology. So the idea was to bridge until we could get that new technology in place.

    That was the thinking then at the time and that's why we deployed the Guard at that time.

  • Jong Yang:

    And does this decision, President Trump's decision make sense now? I mean, picking people up, it has ticked up at the border, but it's still at the lowest level it's been since about 1970.

  • John Sandweg:

    Border Patrol has never been better staffed, never been better equipped and never have fewer activity at the border than they do right now; 300,000 apprehensions in the last year is the lowest in decades.

    As Theresa said, in 2006, they had over a million apprehensions with about 12,000 Border Patrol agents. That makes sense, when you have 20,000 Border Patrol agents apprehending only 300,000 people.

    And let me just add one quick thing. These people are actually surrendering themselves. Almost roughly at least a third of these individuals are working up to Border Patrol agents and surrendering, or not even coming across the border, but walking into the port of entry and surrendering.

    The idea that we need the National Guard to somehow supplement the detection ability of the Border Patrol just seems ridiculous at this time.

  • Jong Yang:

    Theresa, what is your take?

  • Theresa Cardinal Brown:

    I agree the conditions are different.

    One additional factor that was going on in 2006 is that we actually did have a large number of Central Americans at that time coming in. They weren't the families, the minors and the families that are coming in now. It was mostly men and they were trying to evade.

    We had issues with processing them because they couldn't be returned back across the border. There is some similarity there. But the scale, the scale is completely different.

    As John mentioned, we have had a recent uptick from month to month, and a large uptick from a year ago this area, but last area was the lowest on record since the 1970s. A lot of people are attributing that to the election of President Trump. Yes, it is going up, but we are nowhere near the scale we were back then.

  • Jong Yang:

    And, John, you mentioned the deployment under President Obama was to bridge until some technology got put into place.

  • John Sandweg:

    That's right.

  • Jong Yang:

    The president, President Trump says this is until Congress takes the action necessary to close the loopholes at are undermining our border security efforts.

    Is that essentially open-ended, and what is your thought on that?

  • John Sandweg:

    It certainly seems open-ended to me. And I think a lot of this really, frankly, is politics.

    The Border Patrol, there weren't any calls or any perceived gaps. Their ability to arrest the people that are coming in I think is very well established. They have more than enough manpower and equipment to handle what is coming through.

    Obviously, I think something larger in the political realm is at play with this decision.

  • Jong Yang:

    And, Theresa, what were the downsides that you worried about sending active-duty military, essentially, to the U.S. border?

  • Theresa Cardinal Brown:

    Well, these were National Guard troops, and so there was a lot of negotiating with the governors. There was a lot of discussion internally in the administration about, would they be armed, would they be able to do any law enforcement activity?

    It was pretty clear early on that they were not going to be arresting individuals at the border. They eventually were armed in certain circumstances, but not at the border.

    And so that was a lot of the negotiation with the governors. The other big issue was how it was all going to be paid for. National Guard troops are usually under governors' authorities and the states would pay for it, unless the federal government reimburses.

    The federal government did reimburse about $1.6 billion over that set of deployments. That is going to be an issue Congress is going to have to tackle no matter what.

  • Jong Yang:

    And, Theresa, just staying with you, what was the reaction or how did the governors and how did the Pentagon react when you talked about this, raised this possibility?

  • Theresa Cardinal Brown:

    The Pentagon was nervous I think about this idea.

    There were other things going on. Remember, this wasn't that long after 9/11. We had operations going on in Iraq and Afghanistan, where active-duty National Guard were put into active-duty status and deployed overseas.

    We were not that far after Katrina. National Guard was still doing a lot of cleanup in those areas. So there were a lot of other duties that people wanted the National Guard to be doing. This wasn't necessarily top of mind.

    That having been said, like I said, there were calls and the governors were eager to do this because of the flow that was happening at the time. So we worked out agreements. There were 6,000 at most at any given time, over the two years, about 29,000 National Guard troops on active duty, circulated through those roles.

  • Jong Yang:

    And, John, what was your experience with the governors and the Pentagon?

  • John Sandweg:

    Well, the governors were OK with the plan.

    And I think at the time it was very politically heated time for us, so there were some governors calling for even more troops, especially in Arizona and some of the border, Republican governor-led states.

    But the Pentagon itself was reluctant to do the mission and certainly concerned about the funding and that this drained them from other priorities.

  • Jong Yang:

    And, John, quickly, did it work?

  • John Sandweg:

    Well, we transitioned. I want to make this point very quickly. And this will be interesting to see what the president does.

    We went from boots on the ground to the boots in the air after one year. And when have got the boots in the air, that meant air support, fixed wing and helicopters. That actually was helpful to the Border Patrol and actually proved very effective.

    I think boots on the ground, frankly, probably were not all that effective in hindsight. And it's not nearly as effective as the technology which is currently deployed.

  • Jong Yang:

    And, Theresa, what was your experience?

  • Theresa Cardinal Brown:

    Again, it was bridging a gap as the Border Patrol was staffing up at the time. It did help with that. They did do some of the same similar kind of surveillance operations, monitoring cameras and ground sensors, that helped with apprehensions.

    And so from that standpoint, it was a success. But it was wound down after two years, in part because the National Guard was tired. They had been doing an awful lot of missions, not just at the border, during that period of time. And Defense Department was like, yes, we would rather wind it down, if you can afford it.

  • Jong Yang:

    Theresa Cardinal Brown, John Sandweg, thanks so much for explaining this.

  • John Sandweg:

    Thank you.

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