Correction: This corrects comments by Rodolfo Karisch on the role of guardsmen.
Gov. Doug Ducey touted the deployment of the National Guard to the border as a boon to public safety during a news conference in Nogales on Friday, but sidestepped questions about the impact the move could have on the community's image and economy.
The news conference on the deployment, known as Operation Guardian Support, was held the same day that 60 troops arrived in the Nogales area. President Trump said he wants as many as 4,000 guardsmen to help secure the southern border, though critics say the mandate is more of a political move.
"I'm grateful today to have a federal administration that is finally taking action to secure the border for the safety of all Americans,” Ducey told a gathering of reporters at the Nogales Border Patrol Station. He said Arizonans have been asking the federal government with help in securing the border for years.
Asked about the possibility that the deployment could scare tourists and business away from Nogales, Ducey spoke in general of the state, saying that Arizona is safe, and has a growing population and economy.
When a Nogales-based reporter pointed out that the local economy isn't doing well and the population isn't growing, and asked if people might be afraid when they read that troops have deployed to the Nogales area, Ducey responded:
“A governor has to balance the responsibility of growing economy with public safety, and public safety's going to come first,” adding that the National Guard is deploying to the entire southern border, not just Nogales.
Another reporter pressed Ducey on the optics of sending the military to the border, and what message it sends to tourists.
“The optics of it are you have a government, both a federal government in Washington, D.C., and a state government, that are working together and acting to partner and protect its citizens,” Ducey said.
Rodolfo Karisch, chief patrol agent of the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector, said the guardsmen will help local Border Patrol agents with road maintenance projects, aerial support and by operating camera systems.
“The military support that we're going to get here is going to allow us to free up some agents to get to return to those vital duties" of fighting drug and weapons trafficking, Karisch said.
Reporters noted that local law enforcement officers and business owners have highlighted a more pressing need: additional U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers to speed up travel and trade at the ports of entry.
Karisch said the guardsmen will eventually assist CBP at the ports, but did not explain when or exactly how they would help.
“We can always also use the guard to support us not only between the ports of entry, but at the ports of entry, to make sure we can properly screen the commerce that's coming into the United States,” he said.
The guard deployed to the Nogales area in 2006 under President George W. Bush, and in 2010 under President Obama. Military engineers and reservists also regularly come to the area to help construct roads for Border Patrol use.
The recent deployment has generated an especially loud buzz, coming in the context of widening national political divisions, Trump’s hardline immigration and border security stance, and a long-term decline in illegal border crossings.
During the news conference, which was attended by Border Patrol agents, guardsmen, Nogales Mayor John Doyle and Lt. Raoul Rodriguez of the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office, Ducey reiterated a talking point that Trump and his supporters have used to justify the deployment: illegal crossings and other criminal activities at the border have recently spiked.
“With the recent surge that we've seen, I wanted to come down to the front line in Nogales and see it for myself.”
CBP reports a 203 percent increase in apprehensions at the Mexican border from March 2017 to March 2018, and a 37 percent increase from February to March 2018. In the Tucson Sector, there were 5,784 apprehensions in March, up from 3,823 in February.
However, that recent increase comes after a 25 percent decrease in apprehensions in Fiscal Year 2017 from the previous fiscal year, and an 81.5 percent decrease from 2000, according to CBP data citied in a Dec. 5, 2017 NPR story.
The overall downward trend in apprehensions have led critics to call the deployment an unnecessary overreaction and political move. In a letter to Ducey, U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat who represents Santa Cruz County, called the deployment an “ineffective and wasteful use of U.S. military resources.”
“The state of Arizona must not be used as a political pawn that will leave visitors questioning the safety of our state,” he said.
One reporter at Friday's news conference asked why, if Ducey was so alarmed about border security, he hadn't already deployed the National Guard himself rather than waiting for Trump’s orders.
Ducey did not directly answer the question, but cited his establishment of the Border Strike Force Bureau, a initiative by the Department of Public Safety that uses existing law enforcement agencies to fight border-related crimes.
One reporter said she’s heard that the government and business community of the Mexican state of Sonora are upset with Ducey over his decision to deploy the guard.
Ducey said he has a very positive relationship with Sonora Gov. Claudia Pavlovich, but acknowledged he hasn’t spoken to her about this issue.
Another reporter cited a study by the Government Accountability Office, a non-partisan federal watchdog agency, that found concern within the Department of Defense that previous National Guard deployments created the perception of a militarized border.
“There is no militarization of the border,” Ducey said. “The National Guard is in support of the Border Patrol, and it is the Border Patrol that is in the law enforcement position.”