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Bush to visit border near Yuma Monday

President Bush is scheduled to return to Yuma on Monday – Gov. Janet Napolitano in tow – nearly one year after the announcement of Operation Jump Start and its roughly 6,000 National Guard soldiers to shore up the nation’s southern border.

Days after announcing the Guard buildup in mid-May, Bush went to Yuma and spoke along the border in a heavily fortified spot, chain-link fence and concertina wire at his back. The message was clear: The president intended to crack down on illegal crossings.

But in the year or so since, Operation Jump Start has met with mixed reviews.

About 2,400 Guard soldiers are along Arizona’s border on any given day and will be there for another year. Their two years at the border will give the Border Patrol time to recruit and train 9,000 new officers.

Officials, including Napolitano, say there has been a marked decrease in illegal crossings since the Guard arrived.

Border Patrol arrests of undocumented immigrants are down 30 percent compared with last fiscal year, the biggest drop since after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Some immigration experts say the decline is temporary, as immigrant smugglers seek out new crossing routes. Anti-immigration groups, such as the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, say they have seen little improvement. And critics say the Guard troops are of little value because they’re precluded from making arrests or taking a more active role at the border.

Guard troops are at the border to assist the Border Patrol, which has primary enforcement responsibility. The patrol, which has 6,000 agents along the entire border with Mexico, has assigned about 850 agents to the Yuma area, where the government has most recently focused resources.

“I’ve never seen so many new vehicles,” said Curt Abbott, president of the National Border Patrol Council, Local 2595, which represents Yuma-area agents.

“Everything we’ve gotten, we could really use, but it’s been at the detriment of the other sectors,” Abbott said.

The White House on Wednesday released few details regarding Monday’s visit but did say that the president will continue to advocate for comprehensive immigration reform. That means tougher border enforcement, but also a guest-worker program and some path to citizenship for the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants already living on American soil. It’s perhaps the issue where Napolitano, a Democrat, and Bush, a Republican, find the most common ground.

A bill introduced in the House, and co-sponsored by Arizona Republican Rep. Jeff Flake, would defer new benefits for foreign workers until the federal government tightened border security. The measure also would make undocumented immigrants leave the United States briefly before they could re-enter and be eligible for citizenship.

Those requirements would be balanced against the promise of legal status for the millions of people now living here illegally. The bill also would make it easier for employers to verify that workers are eligible for jobs and would create a new visa to allow 400,000 foreign temporary workers to enter the country each year.

Abbott expects the president to grandstand for the compromise.

“He’s going to say we have the border secure and tight, and now we’re going to go with the guest-worker program,” Abbott said.

Phoenix immigrant rights advocate Hector Yturralde is happy to see the president return to Arizona to call for immigration reform. But he speculated that Bush again will do it with a backdrop of heavy-handed border enforcement and accused him of “pandering to the far right” on the issue.

“He talks about immigration reform,” said Yturralde, treasurer of the group We Are America. “But every time he’s in Arizona, he goes down to the border and talks about immigration security.”

Meanwhile, one of the president’s most consistent critics on immigration policy, Republican National Committee member Randy Pullen, had nothing but encouragement for the upcoming visit.

Pullen, now the chairman of the state Republican Party, called the event “a tremendous honor” and noted the success of Operation Jump Start.

“Just one year later, progress has been made in our efforts to increase border security here in Arizona,” Pullen said in a statement. “What is most important now is that we continue working together to find new ways to finish the job that’s been started.”

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