Tim Steller

Arizona Daily Star columnist Tim Steller

Kelly Presnell / Arizona Daily Star//

To hear it from Democrats, you’d think Gov. Doug Ducey’s decision to deploy National Guard troops to the Arizona-Mexico border is some sort of disastrous escalation.

“My colleagues and I write to you in strong opposition to your decision to deploy Arizona National Guard troops to the border on the request of President Trump,” state Sen. Andrea Dalessandro, D-Sahuarita, wrote in a letter signed by 28 legislative Democrats. “At a time when we should be revitalizing our border region, this move to militarize it would cause great harm to our border communities.”

“Our communities do not need to be disrupted by a military occupation,” U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Tucson, said in a campaign email. “Trump’s immigration policy isn’t driven by doing what’s best for the people of this country — it’s driven purely by a desire to terrorize immigrant communities and communities of color.”

U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix, had this memorable response to the deployment, on CNN: “I will gladly work with the president when his ideas aren’t stupid and detrimental to the United States.”

But really, what happened this week is pretty insignificant in terms of practical effects, not a dramatic escalation, and could be marginally helpful. The principal problem with the deployment is simply the politics that motivated it.

Let’s look at the activities newly deployed troops will be doing along the border, in the words of the U.S. Border Patrol:

  • Air support using light, medium or heavy lift helicopters and remotely piloted aircraft.
  • Infrastructure and road maintenance, vegetation clearing, and facility maintenance.
  • Fleet maintenance and repair; fleet transfers and law enforcement communications assistance.
  • Surveillance camera operators, aerostat surveillance systems with crew, and mobile surveillance platform operators.

Not all of these may be happening in Arizona, but in any case it is a pretty limited list of activities. Crucially, it does not include National Guard troops put in a position of trying to arrest or detain people. If if did, you really could call this a significant escalation and militarization.

The 1997 killing of an innocent, 18-year-old Texas goatherd named Esequiel Hernandez by a U.S. Marine deployed to do border security made this country rightfully hesitant about having our military engage directly with people on the border. But that isn’t what this is. It’s a lot like the deployments requested by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, as Pima County Sheriff Mark Napier, a Republican, told me.

“I would think the deployments can only be helpful,” Napier said. “The more assets we have down there, the more able we are to interdict bad actors.”

In terms of the practical effects of the deployment, it really is about that simple. While illegal crossings are way down over the long term, the smuggling of people and contraband between the ports of entry is continuing at a slower pace. As long as it is continuing, there is a role for more people trying to stop it. And that certainly beats building a wall.

Of course, the same justifications for deploying the National Guard that exist now have existed for the entire Trump presidency. The only thing that appears to have changed is political factors.

Specifically, Trump called for deploying troops after he saw news of a caravan of Central Americans walking through southern Mexico, allegedly toward the United States. They were more than 1,000 miles away, but the president either became that concerned by them or saw enough political advantage that he spoke out in favor of putting troops on the border.

And in the weird way this country works now, people around the country, even elected governors with their own cherished powers, jumped to accommodate the president.

“The president concocted this crisis,” longtime Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada, a Democrat, said. “I have the greatest respect for the military, but their role is being misplaced here.”

It has long been apparent that anxiety about the border motivates Republican voters. That was one of the key ingredients to Trump’s victories. And even now, he and his supporters are treating the deployment as if it were a matter of life and death for Americans.

“I don’t think you can put a cost on American life,” spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said when asked about the deployment. “The president sees securing the border as a national security issue and (as) protecting Americans.”

The truth, though, is that nobody kills and harms Americans like other Americans do. We don’t need foreigners to do that dirty work. And the National Guard deployed to the border won’t stop us.

Contact: tsteller@tucson.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter