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Durbin questions Guard use at border

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Sen. Richard Durbin: "We must act now to secure our borders and fix our broken immigration system."

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Delivering the Democratic response to President Bush's immigration speech, Senate Minority Whip Richard Durbin questioned Bush's plan to deploy National Guard troops on the United States' southern border.

The Illinois Democrat said the issue of illegal immigration could be better addressed by leadership than any military solution.

"Democrats are willing to support any reasonable plan that will secure our borders, including the deployment of National Guard troops," Durbin said. (Text of Durbin's speech)

"But Americans don't want a plan that's been cobbled together to win political favor. This cannot turn into another long-term military deployment with no clear plan." (Watch the political implications of the debate -- 1:43)

Durbin said the president's plan to have up to 6,000 guardsmen spend their regular training time at the border -- and be replaced by the next group of soldiers every two weeks -- would ultimately put more than 150,000 individual troops along the border over the next two years.

"The president's proposal raises serious questions about the future of the National Guard," he said. "If Guard members are going to forgo their regular training to patrol the border, are they going to be prepared the next time we have an emergency at home or abroad?"

"Will the president guarantee the National Guard troops will be available to protect their own homes and communities if they're needed? How much more are we going to ask of our National Guard?"

The senator criticized the president and Congress for failing to fund the 10,000 new Border Patrol agents recommended in 2004 by the commission that investigated the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"We haven't kept to our own schedule to increase Border Patrol agents," he said. "The president's budget has fallen short each year to meet the goals of the 9/11 commission and the intelligence-reform bill that we passed. And the Republican Congress has refused to fund those personnel that were needed at the border."

The president's suggestion to supplement the Border Patrol with National Guard troops in supporting roles was simply "playing catch-up" with an already hyper-extended Guard, he said.

Beyond the criticisms, however, Durbin said it was "clear to me that [Bush] favors the approach that the Senate is taking, a comprehensive approach" over the House approach, which focuses on law enforcement.

The president did not specifically endorse any plan currently under consideration by the Congress, but he did call for a temporary guest-worker program and a path to citizenship for those illegal immigrants who have been in the United States for a long period of time and who "pay a meaningful penalty for breaking the law," pay back taxes and learn English. (Main story)

Durbin said that with the Republican leadership rejecting the House bill -- which criminalizes illegal immigrants and anyone who helps them -- Bush's task now is to pass "the test of political leadership."

"The president told us tonight that he supports tough, fair, comprehensive reform," he said. "Now he must lead. The president has the power to call up the National Guard to patrol our border, but now he must summon the power to lead his own Republican forces in Congress to support a bipartisan, comprehensive immigration reform."

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, praised Bush's plan to give illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, but he told CNN's "Larry King Live" that he was "skeptical" about the use of National Guard troops on the border.

"My big question as the New Mexico governor is, of the 6,000, how many are coming to New Mexico? And they couldn't give me an answer on that. It seems this policy is being made on the fly, and that's what's discouraging."

Before Bush's speech, Minority Leader Harry Reid said senators believe border security "is the No. 1 issue facing this country."

He told CNN that Bush's plan to put National Guard troops on the border is "a good idea," but he cautioned that the Guard is being stretched thin by deployments in Iraq.

"The troops really are beleaguered. They're overworked. And we have to make sure that they have the ability to do this," Reid told CNN, accusing Bush of having a "credibility gap" on immigration.

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