RESIDENT Barack Obama will send up to 1200 National Guard troops to the US-Mexico border and seek increased spending on law enforcement there to combat drug smuggling after demands from Republicans and Democrats that border security be tightened.
A Democrat congresswoman revealed the move, which was confirmed by administration officials after Mr Obama met Republican senators, several of whom have demanded that troops be placed at the border.
But the decision also reflected political pressure in the President's own party, with mid-term election campaigns under way and what is expected to be a tumultuous debate on the overhaul of immigration law.
The issue has pushed Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano into a corner.
As governor of Arizona, she demanded troops be put on the border. But since joining the Obama administration, she has been non-committal about the idea, saying that action by Mr Obama had improved border security.
The troops would be in the four border states for a year, White House officials said. It is not certain when they will arrive.
The troops will join a few hundred National Guard members already assigned there to help hunt drug smugglers.
The extra troops will support law enforcement officers by helping observe and monitor traffic between official border crossings. They will also help analyse trafficking patterns in the hope of intercepting illegal drugs.
Democrat congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who is expected to be in a competitive race for re-election in southern Arizona, said: 'The White House is doing the right thing. Arizonans know that more boots on the ground means a safer and more secure border. Washington heard our message.
Arizona Republican senator John McCain, whose opponent in a coming primary has relentlessly criticised him on immigration, said that he welcomed Mr Obama's move but that it was simply not enough.
Senator McCain called for the introduction of 6000 troops to police the border, with 3000 for Arizona. Calls for sending troops to the border grew after the shooting death of a rancher in southern Arizona in March that police suspect was carried out by someone involved in smuggling.
Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, a Republican running for a full term, has requested troops for the border but decided not to use her authority to do it, citing the state's tattered finances. The governors of New Mexico and Texas also want troops.
From 2006 to 2008, former president George Bush made a larger deployment of National Guard troops under a program called ''Operation Jump Start''.
At its peak, 6000 National Guard troops at the border helped build roads and fences in addition to backing up law enforcement officers.
Those troops contributed to the arrest of more than 162,000 illegal immigrants, the rescue of 100 people lost in the desert and the seizure of 140,000 kilograms of illicit drugs.
Then, as now, the soldiers did not directly make arrests of border-crossers and smugglers.
Rick Nelson, who studies domestic security at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said that the additional spending could improve security over the long term but that the National Guard deployment was not sufficient for ''an overwhelming change that will change the dynamics on the border''.
This is a symbolic gesture, he said. ''At the end of the day, the face of border security is still going to be Customs and Border Protection, the law enforcement community. It's not going to be the National Guard.
Obama administration officials had resisted sending National Guard troops to the border but had never ruled it out.
They pointed to improvements at the border, including a record seizure of drug-related cash and guns, falling or flat rates of violent crime in border towns, and record lows in the flow of illegal immigrants across the border.
NEW YORK TIMES
RANDAL ARCHIBOLD, LOS ANGELES
May 27, 2010