EL PASO, Texas - The National Guard’s support to the Border Patrol is reaping results for both institutions and for the nation, officials said during a late November tour of the country’s 1,300-mile Southern border.
"I was here 2½ months ago, and things that I didn’t think would be possible in a year are already accomplished," said LTG H Steven Blum, chief, National Guard Bureau. "Infrastructure is up; fencing is up; roads are built; lighting is up; apprehensions are down."
President George W. Bush announced in May that up to 6,000 National Guard Citizen-Soldiers and Airmen would assist the Border Patrol in securing the boundary with Mexico.
"The men and women of the National Guard are doing a fantastic job; it’s really making a difference," said Buzz Jacobs, director of immigration security policy on the White House Homeland Security Council.
"As has happened so many times in the last five years, the National Guard has been the agency that has stepped up to assist," said Craig Duehring, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs.
The use of Operation Jump Start (OJS) troops in support positions has freed up Border Patrol agents to return to policing the border, which agents call "the line."
"Jointly, we’re making a definite impact on the border," said Robert Gilbert, chief patrol agent for the Border Patrol’s El Paso Sector. "The professionalism and dedication and training the Guard has brought to our mission and our fight – the way they’ve made it their mission and their fight – is more than we expected."
The extra eyes and ears provided by the National Guard – especially in observation posts called entry identification teams – has resulted in a drop in the numbers of illegal aliens apprehended.
Border Patrol agents say that means that OJS is a success, because decreased apprehensions mean fewer people are trying to cross illegally.
"Illegal crossing in some places has stopped just by the mere presence of the Guard and the Border Patrol having increased eyes and ears in places where we were unable to put Border Patrol agents before," Blum said.
The Guard members are seen as a temporary measure while the Border Patrol boosts its ranks by an additional 6,000 agents to about 18,000 agents, officials say. That process takes time – prospective agents are carefully screened, they must be trained, and they must pass a series of exams including ones designed to test their required Spanish proficiency.
"The problems we have with border security have been decades in the making," said Jonathan Hoffman, adviser to the Department of Homeland Security’s chief of staff.
The fix includes hiring new agents, building new Border Patrol stations, adding sensors and improving infrastructure such as roads and fences, Hoffman said. "It takes time," he said, "and the National Guard has given us that stop-gap for a couple of years to come out here and put eyes and ears on the border where we’ve never had them before."
Blum characterizes the Guard’s role as supporting the Border Patrol, and he said the goal is not to shut down the border.
"This is military support to civilian law-enforcement operations," Blum said. "The idea is to allow legal immigration both ways and to allow commerce both ways, to allow people and vehicles and commodities to move north and south across our border between us and our neighbors in Mexico."
National Guard troops are not directly involved in the apprehension of illegal aliens. Rather, they watch the border and relay their observations to Border Patrol agents, who decide how to act on them and detain any suspected illegal immigrants.
But the National Guard has gone beyond thwarting illegal crossings. In the six months since OJS ramped up, Guard members have helped the Border Patrol save lives in the sometimes-harsh borderlands. They have helped interdict illegal drugs. They have strengthened border infrastructure, adding miles of fence, vehicle barriers and road improvements.
"I was impressed with the tactical infrastructure," said Hoffman, the homeland security advisor. "There is a tremendous amount of progress. If you’re out here on the border, you can see that the fences that are being rebuilt, being extended, being repaired are a dramatic improvement."
Guard members operate surveillance cameras, service equipment, provide medical care and even care for Border Patrol horses.
"Everything from vehicle maintenance to aircraft maintenance to infrastructure building, all of those things that we can’t do ourselves, the Guard’s doing for us," said Michael Nicely, chief patrol agent for the Tucson Sector. "We couldn’t do what we’re doing without the Guard’s support down here; Operation Jump Start has been an absolutely unqualified success."
Said Gilbert, the chief patrol agent in El Paso, "The Guard brings us individuals who are well-trained, well-disciplined and dedicated -- which is exactly what we look for in a Border Patrol agent."
Gilbert said he was struck by the service of Guard members. "It’s critical that the men and women of the National Guard recognize that we recognize what their challenges are, what their sacrifices are," he said. "They’re serving us overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to come home and help us with our home front fight is something that we’re very grateful for."
Duehring said the border mission is part of the Global War on Terrorism. "The nature of the mission has changed because of the Global War on Terrorism," he said. "The potential danger to our country has increased dramatically. It’s not just a story of people looking for a better way of life. It is, in fact, a great potential for increased damage to our country, threats to our citizens, to our way of life, that’s something that needs to be addressed. We took the border mission for granted for too many years, and that’s no longer going to be the case."
National Guard members volunteer for border duty knowing that Operation Jump Start is an optional extra on top of other domestic or foreign service.
"They should be extremely proud," Duehring said. "For the last five years, the National Guard has answered every request for help and has succeeded every time they have been tasked. They have met every single challenge. It is an incredible record."