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Inside the California Guard's border security mission

By Army Staff Sgt. Jessica Inigo, California National Guard | Sept. 22, 2010

SAN DIEGO - In the month since becoming fully operational on the U.S.-Mexico border, the California National Guard members assigned to Joint Task Force Sierra have launched a three-pronged attack to help U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in its mission.

Watching over the land and sea make up the first two avenues of approach, and then criminal analysts bring up the rear by ensuring all available data is pored over to remain one step ahead of the game.

In all avenues of approach, the Soldiers and Airmen act as a stable force, leaving ample time and space for Border Patrol agents to focus on their mission of stopping illegal activity of all sorts on the border between the two countries, said Capt. Daniel R. Fox, the task force company commander.

The land watchers are made up of small groups of Entry Identification Team (EIT) members who are placed at strategically selected spots throughout San Diego County. While positioned toward the south, these teams train their eyes to notice any movement across the vast, rolling hills between them and the Mexico border. 

Operating 24 hours per day, these teams ensure that when Border Patrol agents move to make an apprehension, that there are no gaps in detection coverage.

Depending on the time of day, service members use binoculars, infrared sensing devices and stationary truck-mounted cameras to determine exactly what is on their radar.

“You really have to remain aware of all movements, even when it seems like nothing is going on — there is no room for complacency,” said an EIT member who wishes to remain anonymous because of mission safety reasons.

Known as the “coast watchers,” these groups of EIT members have the same basic mission as those who watch the land, but they have the added obstacle of monitoring at an ever-moving object. Instead of training the eye for movement, they look for specific shapes through highly advanced optics provided by Border Patrol.

“The Guardsmen provide added personnel, giving CBP an additional layer to our detection capability,” said Border Patrol spokesman Justin M. De La Torre. “This directly increases our likelihood of apprehending anything that illegally enters our country in-between the ports of entry.”

Along with the already combined efforts of the California National Guard and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Border Patrol also joins forces with the Coast Guard for the maritime mission, reporting any suspicious activity to be halted on the sea or detained on land.

Intercepting Mexican panga boats crossing illegally into country makes up the bulk of the activity, according to De La Torre. These boats can carry a large load for human or drug trafficking. 

“There really is a different look to the pangas than anything else we’re seeing out there. It’s different than other vessels and it’s different than wildlife,” said a coast watcher, who also requested anonymity.

Working along with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, the criminal analysis mission remains largely classified by officials. However, according to the agency’s website, ICE is the largest investigative agency in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

It was formed in 2003 as part of the federal government’s response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and its primary mission is to protect national security, public safety and the integrity of the U.S. borders through the criminal and civil enforcement of federal laws governing border control, customs, trade and immigration.

Electronic databases, including fingerprint identification, remote video surveillance and mobile surveillance systems, enhance detection. The handful of military analysts assisting CBP and ICE also utilize more low-tech human intelligence capabilities. The specifics of their gathering methods, exactly what they are viewing and how they are viewing it cannot be discussed in detail, according to De La Torre, but he emphasized that the mission is going smoothly.

Being plugged in on the intelligence side ensures that the California National Guard is not only acting as an extra set of eyes and ears, but that the CNG is actively involved in future operations to protect California from activities that could be detrimental to Americans, according CBP leadership. 

With all the various angles to the mission come different skill sets, as well as numerous hurdles the troops must overcome. According to leadership, service members are learning the ins-and-outs of their mission working alongside Border Patrol agents.

The three approaches, coupled with what Border Patrol agents were already doing, have kept illegal entry numbers down 42 percent from last year, according to Border Patrol statistics.

Plus, many of the natural skill-sets needed for the mission are already possessed by military members, according to Fox, making them vital to the on-going mission.

Though the majority of the criminal activity continues to be human and narcotic trafficking, there is another side: Officials anticipate that terror groups could also try this avenue of approach to get into the United States.

According to De La Torre, more than 95 percent of illegal border-crossing is done by Mexican nationals, with the remainder coming from anywhere else in the world. As a sort of regional war on terror, both military and CBP officials said this joint partnership is helping to “disrupt, dismantle and ultimately defeat” illegal smuggling and entrance of all sorts between the two countries.

As an added bonus, the Southwest border mission acts as a nice transition for those recently returning from missions in Iraq or Afghanistan. This Homeland Security deployment on California soil is a more gradual introduction back into the American day-to-day, according to veterans currently serving on the task force.

Of course, the mission also brought troops who are normally dispersed throughout California into San Diego County, sometimes keeping them away from families. However, the mission is worth it, said Fox.

“We have established a good working relationship with CBP and we will continue to build that relationship for whatever the future holds,” he said.

Fox added that part of mission success is ensuring home-life happiness remains. “We couldn’t do this mission without the support of our families. We make every effort to make sure the Soldiers and Airmen get home to see their families on a frequent basis.”

California’s portion of the Southwest border mission requires about 260 Guardsmen to support CBP, which will give CBP time to train and hire new officials. This is part of a larger tasking from President Barack Obama, who asked this year for an additional 1,200 troops to be placed along the four border states.

California was the first to become fully operational and has maintained a reserve of trained Soldiers and Airmen to fill in as needed throughout the yearlong mission.