PHOENIX --The National Guard is slowing the withdrawal of soldiers from the border to give more time for the Obama administration to convince Congress to extend the mission beyond the end of this month.
"We have been asked to pause the draw down as long as it is prudent to do so,' said Rod Korba, spokesman for the National Guard Bureau in Washington.
"We have no information at this point that tells us we are extending the border mission,' he told Capitol Media Services. "However, we know the Department of Homeland Security is trying to re-appropriate money,' moving it from one area of the agency's budget to another to keep the soldiers in place another three months.
But the move comes after some members of the Arizona National Guard already have been taken off the border. Capt. Valentine Castillo said there always had been plans to reduce the border presence before the original June 30 cutoff date.
He explained that some of these soldiers were due for their regular two-week summer training with their own units.
"That annual training is important because they need to maintain their skill sets with their units,' Castillo said, with each soldier having specific specialties like mechanics, helicopter repairs or military police. "And they also have to maintain weapons qualification' which usually occurs during the annual training.
The result, he said, is there are no longer 560 soldiers assigned to the border mission in Arizona as there were at the peak. Castillo declined to say how many are left.
"We are trying to maintain enough troops on the border to be fully operational until the mission ends on the 30th of June,' he said.
But the real aim of slowing down troop withdrawal is to buy time.
"Congress appropriates funds for these types of missions,' said Matt Chandler, spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security.
Chandler said his agency is "requesting a reprogramming' of its funding through the end of the current federal fiscal year which runs through Sept. 30 "while exploring options for future security needs along the border.'
Arizona's contingent of 560 soldiers is the largest segment of 1,200 troops President Obama ordered deployed last year along the entire Southwest border. Chandler said the deployment was not meant to be permanent but "a bridge to longer-term enhancements' to targeting the smuggling of people, drugs, weapons and money across the border "and the violence associated with those illegal activities.'
The mission to date, he said, has been a success.
"Since their deployment last summer, National Guard soldiers have assisted Customs and Border Protection with the seizure of more than 14,000 pounds of drugs,' he said. Chandler also said the soldiers have help identify illegal border crossers, leading to the apprehension of more than 7,000 illegal aliens.
But Chandler noted that a three-month extension for 1,200 soldiers along the border would cost about $30 million. That computes out to about $25,000 for each soldier in facilities, supplies and support.
Korba said the National Guard bureau is watching the effort by Homeland Security to get congressional approval to move around some of its funds.
"We just haven't heard anything that lets us know that there will be an extension,' he said.
The push comes as Republicans John McCain and Jon Kyl, Arizona's two U.S. senators are pushing to put 6,000 National Guard troops along the border, including 3,000 in Arizona alone, on a long-term basis.
The senators did not say how much that would cost or set an end date for the deployment. Instead, they want the soldiers to stay until the governor certifies, after consulting with state, local and tribal law enforcement, that the federal government has "achieved operational control of the border.'
Gov. Jan Brewer also is asking for an extension of the mission.
In a letter to the president last month, she detailed some of the accomplishments of Arizona guard troops in helping to apprehend border crossers and seize marijuana. She wrote to Obama that if the mission ends in June, "the gains we have made will be immediately lost.'