Arizona's stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border is still not secure despite improvements, and ending the National Guard mission there is ill-advised, Sen. John McCain said Thursday.
"The work that the National Guard has been doing is vital and it needs to be increased rather than decreased," McCain said in a news conference in Tucson. "When the secretary of Homeland Security withdraws the National Guard from the border after they've been doing such a good job, we don't know if they are really serious about securing our border."
The National Guard border mission began in August and has all along been scheduled to end in June. That plan remains in place.
The 560 soldiers in Arizona represent nearly half of the 1,200 troops President Obama authorized in May for active duty along the U.S.-Mexico border. The mission is part of the Obama administration's overall border-security plan.
"We agree with Sen. McCain and his congressional colleagues that there have been improvements along the border, and we agree that work remains to be done," said Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman Melanie Roe in an emailed statement. "That is why this administration continues to commit an unprecedented level of personnel, resources and technology to the Southwest border."
McCain spoke to reporters after a border tour he took alongside four fellow Republican lawmakers from Arizona: Rep. Jeff Flake, Rep. Paul Gosar, Rep. Ben Quayle and Rep. David Schweikert.
The group toured the border near Nogales and Douglas and met in Tucson with officials from the Arizona High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, or HIDTA. While in Douglas, they met with the widow of rancher Robert Krentz who was killed a year ago in a still unsolved case. McCain weighed in on several border issues.
guardsmen on the border
"We want them here until we have enough Border Patrol and other associated organizations that will complete the job of securing the border," McCain said.
When asked how he defines operational control of the border, McCain touted a 10-point plan he and Sen. Jon Kyl support.
Their plan includes calls for 3,000 National Guard troops along the U.S.-Mexico border, fully funding the Operation Streamline prosecution initiative in Arizona, $40 million more in Operation Stonegarden funding for local law enforcement and constructing double and triple layer fencing along some locations in Arizona and California.
When the mission ends in June, the National Guard will be replaced by the 1,000 additional Border Patrol agents funded in the $600 billion border security supplemental legislation of 2010.
The legislation also provided for the purchase of two new unmanned aircraft systems, erection of two new forward operating bases, 250 Customs and Border Protection port offices and 250 Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigators.
Since they arrived on the border last summer, National Guard soldiers have helped Border Patrol agents seize more than 14,000 pounds of drugs and apprehended more than 7,000 illegal border crossers across the U.S.-Mexico border, according to Department of Homeland Security figures.
Border drug violence
"All of us would agree that there have been some improvements but the level of violence has also dramatically increased on the other side of the border," McCain said. "The violence level is incredibly high."
Cochise County ranchers that McCain met with said they feel they live in an a vulnerable environment.
"The great fear is that the violence on the other side of the border has been spilling over to our side," McCain said.
Like President Obama, McCain would like to work toward passing comprehensive immigration reform but said he has a prerequisite.
"We have to have to have our border secure and we have to have their (the Obama administration) commitment," McCain said.
"After our border is secured and we can assure our citizens of that, we will be fully prepared to move forward with comprehensive immigration reform."
Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or email@example.com.