SAN LUIS, Ariz. - The U.S. border with Mexico here is flat. There is no river between the two countries, and the Yuma Desert stretches to the east.
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.”