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Guard's impact at border

President Bush calls for 6,000 troops to halt the influx of illegal immigrants. But critics say it won't make a big difference.

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In the days before President Bush detailed his plan to use the National Guard to beef up border security, the nation wondered whether the commander in chief was again adding to the burdens of an overstretched force.

In the weeks ahead, however, the most pertinent questions might turn toward whether those soldiers deployed on the border will make any significant difference.

The scope of the deployment is so limited - no more than 6,000 soldiers for about a year - that few analysts say it will constrain the Guard's ability to fight the war on terror or respond to domestic emergencies. Yet because of this modest footprint, some wonder whether it can accomplish its goal of sealing America's nearly 2,000-mile border with Mexico.

With the Guard in support, Mr. Bush's plan, set forth in a televised address Monday night, would put 18,000 troops and border patrol agents on the country's southern frontier. Doing the job right, some experts suggest, would require more than twice that number.

"When you realize how manpower-intensive patrolling the border is, you realize this is a stopgap," says Andrew Krepinevich, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington.

Bush essentially acknowledged as much, saying that the National Guard is a temporary fix. The Guard is intended to plug the gap completely for one year. Then, as new patrol agents become available, Guard forces will withdraw, entirely by 2009.

Yet even the ultimate goal - 18,000 border patrol agents - is insufficient, critics say. And in the interim, the National Guard troops will be limited in what they can do. To avoid the perception of a militarized border, Bush has proposed that Guard soldiers refrain from any law-enforcement activities, such as arresting, detaining, or transporting illegal border-crossers.

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