“This (mission) is not really unique,” Jack Harrison, the director of communications for the National Guard Bureau told participants in a DoD Bloggers Roundtable. “The National Guard has been involved at the Southwest border for two decades.”
During that time, National Guard members have worked in the counterdrug program in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. “Above and beyond the 1,200 authorized for this mission, there are over 350 counterdrug personnel (in these states) doing that mission,” Harrison said.
Almost 6,000 Guard members from around the country were deployed in support of Operation Jump Start, a two-year mission that ended in 2008.
“So, this is not new,” Harrison said.
Many of the Guard members, who have volunteered for the current border mission, also have overseas deployment experience. “And yes, those experiences are certainly useful for this mission,” Harrison said. “It is also why DHS requested the National Guard’s support on the border … they recognize that level of experience.”
Harrison said the Guard will act as “extra eyes and ears” for Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents during the one-year mission. They will provide entry identification and criminal analysis support to these agencies.
Neither mission requires direct law enforcement activates, Harrison said. “They will be armed, but that will be more for self-protection than anything else.”
Of the 1,100 on duty, there are about 975 Army Guard members and 100 Air Guard members.
Harrison said these Guard members volunteered for this mission and were not called up as part of a unit.
Each state is using volunteers from within the state. “There are no units or individuals from outside those four states being called in to help in those four states,” Harrison said.
The incremental deployment of Guard members began on July 1, and the one-year mission includes training time, “boots on the ground” time and the ramp down at the end of the mission.
The training can take from two to three weeks and focuses on the agencies’ tactics and procedures as well as any equipment that may be used during the mission.
Harrison said this is a federally funded mission, but it is not federally commanded. “The governor and the adjutant general in each of these four states maintain command and control over each person on duty,” he said. “They control the flow of the forces and the numbers of forces on duty … and they will maintain that level of control throughout the mission.”
He added that the total funding authorized for this mission for up to 1,200 Guardsmen for up to one year is $135 million.
The states cannot activate more than 1,200, but they could use fewer, Harrison said adding, “that would be up to each state.”
Of the almost 1,100 currently on duty, there are about 300 in California, 450 in Arizona, 90 in New Mexico and 225 in Texas.
“We take this mission very seriously,” Harrison said. “The president has asked us to support this mission, while CBP and ICE hire new agents. Everything is going as we expected it to go, and we are on track for up to 1,200 people.”
But the borderland terrain is considerably different in other communities that LTG H Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, and senior federal officials visited during a late November trip along the 1,300-mile border from California to Texas.
The National Guard has provided up to 6,000 Citizen-Soldiers and Airmen for Operation Jump Start. President George W. Bush announced the Guard’s two-year commitment to helping the Border Patrol secure the border in May.
When it comes to policing this mercurial border, one size does not fit all, Blum said.
“It’s a complex operation,” said Craig Duehring, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for Reserve Affairs, who accompanied Blum on the trip. “I certainly came with some misconceptions that one size fits all, that what we were going to do was just put a fence across from Point A to Point B, and then it would all be done. Now I’m starting to realize that’s simply not the case.”
The complexities start with the varied geography of the border itself. As the geography changes, so do the challenges in controlling it. In California, San Diego’s southern suburbs are separated from Tijuana, Mexico, by a trio of fences designed to “encourage” people to use the international port of entry for travel and trade.
From sea level in San Diego, the border climbs to 4,180 feet into the California mountains. Weather there can include ice and snow, though east in El Centro, Calif., agents encounter 120-degree temperatures.
In Nogales, Ariz., the population of the Mexican city of the same name dwarfs the U.S. community. Rugged ridges stretch along the border which in some places is marked by a high fence built from old aircraft landing mats and in others by a single strand of barbed wire or by nothing at all.
In 180 particularly challenging miles from Columbus, N.M., to El Paso, Texas, there are no ridges, no fence and no river. A single dirt track marks the international line across the high desert. On the U.S. side, a dearth of north-south roads forces Border Patrol agents and National Guard troops to travel dozens of miles just to get to their duty stations.
“It is 180 miles of nothingness,” said Robert Gilbert, chief patrol agent for the Border Patrol’s El Paso sector. “180 miles of vast, wide-open land 40 miles from anything.”
From El Paso to the Gulf of Mexico, the Rio Grande runs sometimes wide, sometimes strong, always a natural barrier, but not always an effective one.
“Within El Paso, the biggest issue is that we don’t have the Rio Grande as an obstacle,” Gilbert said. “It’s nothing but a trickle up here. It doesn’t give us that level of deterrence that they have downriver.”
“There are nine separate Border Patrol sectors, and four states are involved,” he said. “None of the sectors are identical or even similar in many cases, so each one has to be dealt with in its own manner.”
Sectors have varied demographics, geography and personalities, he said.
Along some of the 1,300 miles, engineers can pour concrete fence foundations. In other areas, such as the Arizona desert, the sand is so fine that attempting to dig a foundation trench is a lost cause, and different construction techniques must be used.
“The barriers and the tactical infrastructure you need to be effective in open desert is quite different, and your reaction time is quite different than it is in an urban area such as El Paso,” Blum said. “Each sector has to adapt its techniques and its procedures and balance its forces – its Border Patrol agents and National Guard members – to deliver the best capability.”
“It’s important for people – especially in the policy business – to realize the difficulties,” Duehring said. “I come away from this with two major changes in my attitude. That is the amount of work that has been done, which you can quantify, and the other thing is the complexity of the challenge.”
“We’ve got a lot of different terrain across the 1,300 miles of the border,” said Buzz Jacobs, director of immigration security policy for the White House Homeland Security Council. “Where some people offer simple solutions to securing the border, it’s actually more complex. It’s going to require a lot of time, hard work and a national effort to get this border under control.”
The National Guard has been leading that national effort by providing support to the Border Patrol in their mission to gain operational control of the entire border. National Guard members provide administrative support, act as the Border Patrol’s eyes and ears, and fill a wide variety of other roles, though they are not directly involved in apprehending suspected illegal aliens.
“In the San Diego Sector alone, there have been over 2,500 additional apprehensions as a result of the extra eyes and ears,” said Maj. Gen. William Wade, adjutant general of the California National Guard.
Operation Jump Start has also had an unintended consequence, Blum said.
“We’ve got 44 states right now that are sending troops down here,” he said. “They are coming from places where the conversation around the dinner table during a family meal rarely included the southwest border.”
That is now changing in Tennessee, West Virginia, Kentucky, Nebraska and dozens of other states, Blum said.
“The unintended consequences of bringing people in from all over the country to perform this mission is that now we’re starting to see an awareness for this issue on our borders and the need to get control of these borders, not to shut them down,” he added.
“Our country will be stronger for this experience,” Duehring added. “People throughout our nation will appreciate the challenge that the Border Patrol faces every single day.”
Mexican officials responded and seized approximately 45 pounds of marijuana, a sport utility vehicle, and a catapult capable of launching contraband into the U.S.
As part of the Sept. 8 deployment of 504 National Guard personnel to the Tucson Sector, National Guard troops assigned to operate the remote video surveillance system at the Naco station observed several individuals just south of the international boundary fence preparing a catapult.
Border Patrol agents assigned to the International Liaison Unit contacted Mexican authorities who responded to the area and disrupted the catapult operation. Camera operators observed individuals fleeing the area, presumably to avoid apprehension.
“The Border Patrol’s partnerships with Mexican authorities, the National Guard and the public enhance our efforts to address and disrupt the organized drug trafficking threat at the border and serves to degrade the capabilities of transnational criminal organizations,” Associate Chief Jose Cruz said.
“With their continued support and that of the public, we will continue to more effectively address threats before they cross the International Boundary.”