Over the last two years, thousands of National Guard troops have assisted U.S. Border Patrol agents along the Mexican border, and most of Arizona's congressional delegation wants to keep it that way.
A proposed amendment by Rep. Harry Mitchell, a Democrat who represents much of Maricopa County in Arizona's 5th Congressional District, would extend the National Guard presence indefinitely until the Border Patrol is fully staffed along the border.
Since 2006, 17,300 National Guard soldiers and airmen have voluntarily deployed to the Mexican border to support the Border Patrol under a program known as Operation Jump Start, said National Guard spokeswoman Capt. Kristine Munn.
Their primary mission, Munn said, has been aviation support, including search and rescue, but the Guard has also put in roads, fences, vehicle barriers and wells.
It has observed the border, "acting as the eyes and ears of the Border Patrol," but has "no law enforcement duties whatsoever," Munn said.
At the program's peak, 6,000 soldiers were stationed along the border, 2,400 of them in Arizona.
Currently, about 3,000 troops are stationed on or near the border, though the number fluctuates daily, Munn said.
The idea is that by taking on a support role, the troops free up Border Patrol agents to do more enforcement work.
But the program is set to expire July 15, and many members of Arizona's congressional delegation have said that deadline is too soon.
"We want to make sure that the border is protected," Mitchell said, "that we continue those troops there until the Border Patrol has enough replacements."
Mitchell's amendment was still in committee Wednesday afternoon, but he expects it to go to a House floor vote this week and hopes that it will ultimately be attached to a defense spending bill.
It's not the only border-related amendment up for review. Virginia Rep. Virgil Goode, a Republican, has put forth an amendment that would allow the secretary of defense to deploy members of the active or reserve military in all branches to the border.
Essentially, Mitchell's amendment would keep roughly 3,000 National Guard soldiers on the border until they can be replaced on a one-for-one basis by Border Patrol agents.
When Operation Jump Start began in 2006, President Bush said 6,000 more Border Patrol agents would be hired.
A spokesman for the Border Patrol said Wednesday that the agency is "on track" to have 18,000 agents by the end of this year.
"At initiation of Operation Jump Start, there were 11,583 agents. We currently have 16,239 agents in the U.S. Border Patrol," said Agent Jaimé Castillo.
There is no end date to Mitchell's Operation Jump Start amendment, but he said he doesn't see the extension as opening the door for an indefinite military presence along the border.
"No, I don't think so," he said. "The purpose of this was just to put the guards on the border until" more agents could be hired.
Congress was urged by the governors of New Mexico, Arizona and California to extend the operation after the administration declined to do so.
Jeanine L'Ecuyer, a spokeswoman for Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, said the Guard's presence had worked to cut the number of border crossings.
"The governor feels we have something that's working. We should continue to do that and not fuss with it in midstream," L'Ecuyer said.
The amendment has large support from Arizona's congressional delegation, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat whose southeastern Arizona district covers a large stretch of the border.
"I do support it," she said. "I work closely with local and state and federal law enforcement on the border. We have a real problem. ... We need as much help as we possibly can muster in southern Arizona."
But southern Arizona's other representative, Democrat Raul Grijalva, called the amendment nothing more than "political posturing" designed to make Democrats who are up for re-election look tough on border policy.
He said he is concerned that the amendment will open the door for an indefinite deployment of troops to the border, as well as potential disruptions for people who live near the line.
"I think putting the National Guard on the border, while symbolically looking good, I don't think it's going to be integral to the border issues people are raising."
He said he doesn't see how the troops would address the trafficking of drugs and people going north from Mexico into the U.S. or the flow of guns south from the U.S. into Mexico.
Ultimately, he said he would like to see more agents hired and a greater emphasis on law enforcement.
"The real security threat that we have on the border is organized crime on both sides," he said. "We miss the boat by pandering to these issues."