WASHINGTON - The National Guard's mission at the southwestern U.S. border is a balance of shared responsibility between the federal and state governments that is already improving border security and reducing illegal immigration, the National Guard's top leader said here today.
"I think it's the right way to do business in the United States of America," said Army Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau. "It is exactly a shared responsibility between state and federal (governments). It is not heavy-handed one way or the other, and it doesn't wrench control away from the governor nor the president. The National Guard has met all of the numbers that have been asked for and delivered all of the capabilities that have been asked for."
The National Guard has exceeded its 6,000-troop requirement at the border and is providing critical capabilities that allow the Border Patrol to be more effective as a law enforcement agency, Blum said. Guard troops are constructing fencing, putting up lighting, monitoring sensor systems, providing mobility with trucks and helicopters, filling communications gaps, and doing administrative work, he said.
All of these operations are designed to free up Border Patrol agents to do law enforcement activities while an additional 6,000 agents are trained over the next two years to make a more robust force, Blum said.
"We're loaning them the skill sets and the expertise, so they can be more effective in the interim. And then ultimately ... they will be much more capable, manpower-wise, two years from now than they are now," he said.
The Guard's border mission is a shared responsibility between the federal and state governments, because the international border with Mexico is the responsibility of the federal government, but is also part of the state border, Blum said. Blum also has a lot of flexibility in deciding which units will rotate in and out of the border at what times, he said. For instance, Guard units from hurricane-prone states will not be sent to the border until this winter or next spring, so they are available to their state governors for any natural disasters, he said.
The National Guard is still more than able to meet its obligation to the war on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan while sending troops to the border, because the 6,000-troop limit for the border mission makes up only 2 percent of the total force, Blum said. Currently, 30 states have contributed troops to the border mission, and by the end of the two-year mission, almost all 50 states will have sent troops, he said.
"We can do this. The size of this operation and the flexibility that's been afforded will make it fairly easy for us," he said.
The Border Patrol has already seen measurable success from the National Guard's presence at the border, Blum said. Border Patrol officials recently told Blum that traffic of non-Mexican illegal immigrants across the southwestern border has dropped drastically in the short time the Guard has been there, he said.
Guard troops at the border also are satisfied with the mission and progress they have made, Blum said. They are working in fairly hostile terrain that can be brutal during the summer months, but morale is high among the troops, he said.
"The troops understand that this is important work; it's necessary work," he said. "I think they're pretty fulfilled and rewarded by it, and they like the flexibility and length of the mission."
Blum emphasized that the National Guard's mission at the border is not a military one, but is military support to civil authorities. It's important that people in Mexico don't see this mission as a closure of the border to legal immigration, trade and business, he said.
"We're not trying to close the border; we're trying to make the border more secure, in that we want to get more control of the illegal activity that happens on the border," he said. "The legitimate immigration is very important to our nation and to our Mexican neighbor, and our ability to do trade and business back and forth across that border cannot be impeded."