Sat, Jun 14, 2008 - Page 16 News List

Another brick in the wall

Just as US National Guard members are packing up and bidding farewell to the desert after a two-year effort to secure the border with Mexico, efforts are intensifying to have them stay


An aerial view of the terrain just north of the US border with Mexico, near Nogales, filled with canyons and dry riverbeds.


Swooping low over the Mexican border in her Blackhawk helicopter, Chief Warrant Officer Christina Engh-Schappert of the Virginia National Guard spots ... nothing. No sign of the migrants who would congregate in the washes for the mad dash to the US. No clusters of people hiding in the bushes. Nobody in the throes of dehydration and heat exhaustion.

“At first we were constantly catching clients,” Engh-Schappert said later, using the US Border Patrol vernacular for illegal immigrants. “It’s gone from pretty busy to hardly anything in our sector.”

Soon, she will be gone, too, along with 2,600 other members of the National Guard in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas where they are helping to secure the border with Mexico as part of a two-year mission called Operation Jump Start.

Phased down from a peak of more than 6,000 Guard members, the mission is scheduled to end July 15, although a smattering of Guard personnel are expected to remain or return as part of long-standing cooperation with the Border Patrol.

Here, they have built or shored up roads to give federal agents speedier access to the hilly and rocky terrain. They have fixed trucks and monitored cameras and sensors and stood guard in the wilderness, facilitating thousands of arrests by directing agents to illegal border crossers.


But just as Guard members pack up and bid farewell to the desert, an effort is intensifying to have them stay put. The Border Patrol has given the Guard credit for helping to deter and detect illegal crossings, so much so that the governors of the four border states and federal lawmakers now wonder aloud, Why stop now?

“This could be a new record for the federal government, actually abiding by a deadline,” said Dennis Burke, the chief of staff for Governor Janet Napolitano, Democrat of Arizona, who has twice written this year to Michael Chertoff, the secretary of homeland security, to plead for an extension of the mission. “The two-year deadline was arbitrary.”

Napolitano and the other US state governors say the Guard should stay while the Border Patrol continues a hiring frenzy toward meeting a goal of about 18,000 agents by the end of the year, double its size from 2001. It now stands at 16,471, about 5,000 more than two years ago, and the governors, as well as members of Congress, have expressed doubt that the agency will put enough agents in the field to meet its target.

“It is not as easy as running some ads and thinking you are going to have well-qualified people apply and come into the Border Patrol,” said Representative Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat whose southern Arizona district includes the border. “The risk is high, conditions are not great, the pay is average compared to other law enforcement positions. Having the Guard there for a period of time longer until they can ramp up the Border Patrol is necessary for border improvement.”

In addition, the officials point out, the much-anticipated virtual fence, a suite of cameras, radars and other technology intended to enhance around-the-clock surveillance of the border, has been plagued with delays and glitches, although domestic security officials say it is getting back on track.

Representative Harry E. Mitchell, a Democrat from the Tucson area, on Tuesday pressed the case for keeping the Guard in place by raising concerns that rising drug violence in Mexican border towns could spill into the US.

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