SCOTTSDALE -- National Guard troops should be brought back to the border, the state's two U.S. senators said Wednesday.
Sen. John McCain said the Obama administration should accede to the requests of border governors -- including Arizona's own Jan Brewer -- to station soldiers in the area. He said the escalating gang violence in Mexico and the danger of that spilling across into this country makes their presence even more important.
And Sen. Jon Kyl said they don't even have to be in a military role. He said their mere presence is a major deterrent to illegal activity.
To date, though, the response from Washington has been to reject the requests. And it's not political: the Department of Homeland Security said both last year, during the Bush administration, and as recently as last month, after Obama became president, the agency believes the soldiers are no longer necessary.
That, however, could change.
On Wednesday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, during a visit to a border crossing at Nogales, said Obama is now considering the requests from the governors. But she made no promises.
In fact Napolitano, who insisted when she was Arizona governor that the mere presence of soldiers in the area was a deterrent to illegal activity, said Wednesday there are questions about the need.
"Where would they go, what mission would they perform?' she asked.
"You don't just throw something like the National Guard at a place,' Napolitano said. "They have a mission and a job to do.'
That last mission, dubbed Operation Jump Start, was to have soldiers in a support role, doing things ranging from building fences and surveillance to administrative tasks. The number of troops during the two-year mission peaked at 6,000 along the border, with about 2,400 in Arizona.
The goal of the operation was to provide help while the Border Patrol recruited and trained new agents. Officials from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced last year their goals had been met and the troops would leave.
Kyl said he doesn't expect -- nor does he particularly want -- soldiers actively looking to catch those who cross the border illegally. But he said the experience of Operation Jump Start shows they can make a real difference.
"When they were stationed on the border, even without weapons, the coyotes that wanted to bring illegal immigrants across or drugs stayed away,' he said, "There's something about the U.S. military they don't want to mess with.'
He said soldiers can perform a valuable function.
"I have seen it with my own eyes.'
McCain said he does not foresee a permanent role for soldiers in Southern Arizona. But he said they are needed right now because of the violence.
Brewer wrote to Defense Secretary Robert Gates last month, asking he put at least another 250 National Guard troops along the border.
The governor acknowledged there already are about 150 soldiers stationed in Southern Arizona as part of the Joint Counter Narco-Terrorism Task Force. But she said those numbers are insufficient and that said state and local law-enforcement agencies "are stretched as they attempt to address the enormity of the problems' of the illegal drug trade and related border violence.
Brewer's request is virtually identical to several that Napolitano herself made last year to Michael Chertoff, her predecessor in the Bush administration as homeland security chief.
In May, two months before the scheduled end of Operation Jump Start, she called the impending removal of the soldiers "premature and unnecessary.'
Napolitano said at the time that the number of people being apprehended trying to cross the border illegally has been decreasing. "And we think one of the reasons is because they know the Guard is there to back up the Border Patrol,' she said.
As recently as November, even after Napolitano knew Obama had nominated her to head the Department of Homeland Security, she promised to make a new push to the new administration to put soldiers back, even to the point of discussing the issue personally with Obama.
"That's something we continue to advocate,' she said of herself and other border governors. "That really did seem to have an impact on the border in terms of improving the level of safety down there.'
Brady McCombs of the Arizona Daily Star contributed to this report.