Updated Feb. 11, 3:11 p.m.:
Gov. Gavin Newsom says he’s pulling most of the 360 California National Guard troops off the Mexican border to avoid what he calls a “gray area” on whether they’re actually participating in immigration enforcement.
“When you have national guardsmen and women doing, for example, surveillance with cameras, it’s hard to distinguish between those that are participating in gun and drug activity versus those that may be just crossing the border illegally,” the governor said at the Capitol on Monday before signing an official order to rescind former Gov. Jerry Brown’s deployment last spring.
Newsom also continued his sharp criticisms of President Trump’s words and actions on immigration.
“This whole thing is the theater of the absurd,” he said. “And California has had enough, and we will not perpetuate it. We’re not going to participate in it.”
The governor pointed out that his decision should not come as a surprise, given his criticism of the deployment on the campaign trail.
“The only surprise, frankly, is that these guys were able to convince me that there was actually some really good work being done down there, as it relates to drug trafficking,” he said, gesturing to California National Guard Adjutant General David Baldwin and other cabinet members who lead public safety agencies standing behind him.
The governor said his cabinet presented him with “data” and “evidence” that led to him to rethink his “initial inclination” to end the deployment altogether, and he agreed to leave 100 troops to fight drug trafficking at California ports of entry — at the border and elsewhere in the state.
“We’re trying to be very responsible here,” he said. “I didn’t just pull the entire Band-Aid off. I’m trying to acknowledge there’s some legitimate concerns. But I’m not going to play into the hype and the politics.”
Newsom said he has discussed his decision with Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, but has not spoken with the president.
The White House referred questions to the Department of Homeland Security, which has not yet returned a request for comment.
Gov. Gavin Newsom is rescinding former Gov. Jerry Brown's deployment of California National Guard troops to the Mexican border, pulling most of 360 troops off their current missions but leaving some in the area to combat transnational drug smuggling.
"The border 'emergency' is a manufactured crisis," Newsom will say during his State of the State address Tuesday morning, according to advance excerpts provided by his office. "And California will not be part of this political theater."
Earlier this month, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham ordered the majority of her state's National Guard troops at the border to withdraw.
Each of the 50 states, three territories and the District of Columbia maintain National Guard units. During peacetime, the Guard is under the command of each state governor and adjutant general and typically is called upon to respond to emergencies and natural disasters. In time of war, the president can place the Guard under military command.
The recent National Guard deployment to the southern border is something of a hybrid. Federal authorities asked governors to provide Guard troops to assist with border security. The federal government is paying the cost of deployment. But the Guard troops remain under the authority of their state governor and adjutant general.
The California governor is splitting the troops up into three new deployments in a move he will tell lawmakers will allow the National Guard to "refocus on the real threats facing our state":
- 110 troops to support CalFire's wildfire prevention and suppression efforts. Unlike the current deployment, which is funded by the federal government, the state will need to foot the bill for this new mission.
- At least 150 troops to expand the California National Guard's statewide Counterdrug Task Force — if the Trump administration's Department of Defense agrees to fund the expansion.
- 100 troops for intelligence operations targeting drug cartels. The governor's office says some of these troops who are "specially trained counter-narcotic screeners" will be deployed to California ports of entry — both at the Mexican border and elsewhere. The governor's office says funding for this mission will continue to come from the federal government under the terms of the previous deployment agreed to by the Brown and Trump administrations.
California National Guard troops have been deployed at the border since last spring, when Brown gave them what he called a "crystal clear" scope.
"This will not be a mission to build a new wall," Brown wrote in an April 11 letter to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and then-Defense Secretary James Mattis. "It will not be a mission to round up women and children or detain people escaping violence and seeking a better life. And the California National Guard will not be enforcing federal immigration laws."
But the National Guard has been aiding federal efforts along the border by handling duties that otherwise would have had to be performed by U.S. troops and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, including vehicle maintenance, administrative support and operating cameras on the border.
Aside from state National Guards, the president has ordered thousands of active-duty troops to the border. As NPR's Greg Myre has reported, the National Guard and other troops at the border are limited to providing surveillance and other support roles. They cannot act as a police force or make arrests. Every president since Ronald Reagan has called on the National Guard for limited, temporary missions along the frontier.
After initially praising Brown for agreeing to his deployment request, President Trump then criticized him for not supporting, in his words, a safe and secure border.
Newsom's reversal of Brown's deployment is no surprise. During the gubernatorial campaign, Newsom said he disagreed with Brown's decision. And on his first full day in office last month, Newsom said he had directed California National Guard Adjutant General David Baldwin to prepare "a menu of options."
"What's appropriate, what would be inappropriate, what was our commitment under the executive order Gov. Brown signed, how does remuneration work, what exactly is the work currently being done versus the work that was initiated when the executive order wasn't in place," Newsom said that day.
He added: "I can assure you I have not deviated from my previous statements in terms of my desire to move in a different direction."
Mark Katkov contributed to this report.