MISSION, Texas - The National Guard exceeded President George Bush's requirement to have up to 6,000 troops on the U.S. border with Mexico by Aug. 1, the president said here on Aug. 3.
"Last May, I said we'll deploy up to 6,000 National Guard members to assist the Border Patrol," the president said in a speech at Anzalduas County Park. "I said we'd get it done by August 1st. Well, we got it done by August 1st. And I want to thank those in the National Guard."
Nearly 6,200 National Guard Soldiers and Airmen were on duty in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California by Aug. 1, and more than 6,500 troops from more than 30 states were participating in Operation Jump Start when the president visited the region two days later.
The president spoke on the U.S. bank of the Rio Grande, ebony trees shading him from the 96-degree heat, Mexico behind him.
"You heard the president," said LTG H Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, who accompanied the president during his Thursday afternoon border visit with Guard members and U.S. Border Patrol agents.
"He was very complimentary to the National Guard," Blum said. "We delivered over 6,000 Citizen-Soldiers and Airmen to the southwest border states on time, on target. The Customs and Border Patrol commissioner [W. Ralph Basham] is ecstatic about the support he's getting out of the National Guard. As the president said, who else is better prepared in the military to do this mission other than the National Guard?"
Flying into McAllen-Miller International Airport, the president inspected Guard air assets and Border Patrol equipment before he was whisked him through McAllen to the border.
There, Bush visited National Guard Soldiers who are members of an entry identification team that watches the border with equipment that enables them to see people by day or night. The Guard members relay their observations to Border Patrol agents who apprehend suspected illegal immigrants or narcotics smugglers.
Bush at times put his arm around the shoulders of Citizen-Soldiers as he chatted with them about their roles in Operation Jump Start, the National Guard's two-year support to the Border Patrol in securing the border against illegal immigrants.
"He appreciates the sacrifice and the commitment of these magnificent Citizen-Soldiers and Airmen for this very important mission that does have security implications for us right here at home," Blum said.
The president also chatted with Border Patrol agents on horseback before delivering his speech.
"It was an opportunity for the president to see firsthand the great partnership and collaboration between the Border Patrol and the National Guard," said David Aguilar, chief of the Border Patrol.
"The National Guard is a tremendous partner," Aguilar said. "What the National Guard brings to the Border Patrol is nothing less than a force multiplier protecting this nation."
The president thanked all National Guard members in general and LTG Blum by name before outlining his immigration policy.
"General Blum said, ‘Mr. President, we're going to get the job done,' " Bush recalled. "I said, ‘That's good, General Blum, because – come August 1st – I'm going to come down to the area and take a look-see. And he did. Thank you, General Blum, for a job well done."
The National Guard Soldiers and Airmen are assisting agents in the nation's largest law enforcement agency by taking support roles such as monitoring border surveillance equipment and standing watch on the border. Guard members are also answering telephones, staffing communications centers, maintaining Border Patrol vehicles and building more patrol roads, fences and other border infrastructure.
"They're not arresting people," the president said. "We're not going to militarize this border. The job of arresting people is up to the Border Patrol. [Guard members'] job is to help the Border Patrol – you know, surveillance and construction, logistics. If you've got a Guard person dispatching, it means there's one more Border Patrol agent out on the front line."
"Being eyes and ears is probably one of the most critical things they've been doing and acting as a tremendous force multiplier for the men and women that are actually on the border and responding to what the Guard is seeing for us," Aguilar said.
The president said his Texas roots, including his time as the state's governor, give him an acute understanding of the border.
"I understand this border," Bush told the crowd that included many uniformed Guard members. "We have an obligation to secure our border, and we have an obligation to treat people with decency and respect. And we're going to do both."
Some of the Citizen-Soldiers and Airmen who have come to the border from more than 30 states said they had no comprehension of the situation until they arrived. Border Patrol agents in some sectors apprehend hundreds of people and hundreds of pounds of illegal drugs every day, they learned.
The National Guard is expected to be on the border for up to two years. The president credited the Guard with helping the Border Patrol seize 17,000 pounds of illegal drugs and apprehend 2,500 illegal immigrants since Operation Jump Start began.
The president said he had ordered Guard members to the border while the Border Patrol beefs up its force and technology assets.
"We've called for increases in manpower and technology," he said. "We're going to train 6,000 additional agents. The reason we brought the Guard down here was because we knew we had an immediate need to enforce the border. Until those 6,000 are trained, we're going to be using National Guard units from over 30 states here. And the plan is working. It makes sense. If we need more manpower and the need for manpower is immediate, it makes sense to call upon our Guard troops to come and help the Border Patrol do the job."
Some of the Texas Army Guard Soldiers who were present for the president's visit expressed their excitement.
"I want to see the president," said Spc. Samuel Osteen, who volunteered for Operation Jump Start because he wanted to remain on active duty after a tour in Iraq. "He sent me to Iraq. At least I'd like to get to see him."
Spc. Andrenia Henderson helped escort members of the media and also got to see the president close up. "It's a great privilege," she said.