Reversing course, the Obama administration has decided not to withdraw National Guard troops from the border this summer.
In a briefing Monday, a senior administration official said existing funds will be “reprogrammed’’ to keep the force at the same 1,200-soldier level it is now. That includes 560 soldiers in Arizona.
“We’re working on the way to pay for that now,’’ the official said.
The move comes as President Barack Obama visits the Southwest border Tuesday to make a big push for Congress to finally enact immigration reform.
Presidential press secretary Jay Carney said there will be some “new elements’’ to what Obama has been saying for some time.
“It will reflect his continued commitment to comprehensive immigration reform,’’ Carney said.
In a separate briefing, other administration officials said the speech in El Paso will be less about unveiling new ideas about what the president wants in a comprehensive package and more of what they described as a “call to arms.’’ They said Obama is hoping to use the event to build public consensus that the time finally has come to settle the questions of providing an available and willing workforce and what to do about the 11 million or so illegal immigrants already in this country.
But they rebuffed the idea that anything Obama wants amounts to “amnesty.’’
The decision to keep Guard soldiers along the border beyond June could be to Obama getting anywhere with reform plans in Congress.
Critics, including both of Arizona’s U.S. senators, say any discussion of either more foreign workers or a path to legalization for the undocumented is premature until the nation gets control of its borders. But Carney said the situation has to be seen in its entirety.
“He will make points about the steps we’ve taken on border security, the fact that the number of border agents is double what it was in 2004,’’ he said. Carney said the number of intelligence analysts along the border has been tripled and there are unmanned aerial vehicles all the way from Texas to California.
But people still are crossing the border through the desert. And even Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano herself has cited the positive benefits of Guard soldiers, first placed along the border last fall, in catching those smuggling drugs and humans.
The original plan was to start withdrawing soldiers later this month. That brought a plea from Gov. Jan Brewer to reconsider.
That move, though, is not expected to become permanent, with administration officials saying it is designed to fill gaps while new Border Patrol officers are being trained.
It also falls short of the proposal by Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl who want 3,000 Guard soldiers immediately deployed in Arizona alone.
But Obama’s call to arms will not rest on questions of how secure the border is or is not.
The president also is expected to also argue that immigration reform actually makes the United States more secure. That is based on the premise that the country will know who is coming and going rather than having a steady influx of those who enter illegally.
And Obama also will argue there is what administration call the “economic case’’ for immigration reform.
“It is simply foolish as a matter of policy, when we think about global competition — economic competition that we face in the 21st century — to educate some of the smartest, most creative entrepreneurial young people from around the world in our universities ... and then not let them stay to start businesses, to launch startups that create jobs here in America,’’ Carney said.
He quoted statements by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg that 25 percent of high-tech start-up companies in the United States were founded by immigrants, creating 450,000 jobs.
“We need those jobs,’’ Carney said.
Obama is not relying on the speech itself to push the agenda.
The administration already has set up a conference call for Wednesday with business, labor, law enforcement and faith leaders to review the president’s comments and look at the next steps. There also are other events planned for the balance of the month, including some with Labor Secretary Hilda Solis.