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.
PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE
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.
PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE
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.”
PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE
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.
The reaction from domestic security officials, however, has been thanks, but no thanks.
Despite questions about the strains on the Guard and the military because of the Iraq war, US President George W. Bush, heeding the suggestion of lawmakers, sent 6,000 members of the Guard to the border, with the condition that the number would drop to 3,000 after one year and that assignments would end after two.
Domestic security and National Guard officials are not urging an extension, although they gush over the success of the Guard’s deployment.
“It was an interim bridge so we would be able to build up agents and technology, and that has been accomplished,” David V. Aguilar, chief of the Border Patrol, said last week in a telephone interview from Washington.
But, Aguilar said, “I would not be unhappy” if the Guard stayed on in large numbers.
He ticked off a wealth of statistics attributed to having the Guard in play: 580 agents freed from non-law-enforcement tasks and returned to patrol, more than 1,000 smuggler vehicles seized, a 39 percent drop in arrests for illegal border crossings.
But, Aguilar said, the impact of the Guard’s leaving “is going to be minimal,” because the agency had long planned for the July 15 departure. Also, he said, the Guard, as it has done for years, will continue to perform limited missions and training at the border to help federal law enforcement.
Border economists and sociologists say that the Guard’s successes may be overemphasized, that the drop in arrests, for example, might also indicate fewer people were trying to enter the US because of the souring American economy while those here no longer risk going back and forth across the border.
The mission has not been trouble free. In the beginning, the Guard and Border Patrol bureaucracies did not mesh, some of those involved said, which led to confusion over orders and assignments, and which remains an occasional problem.
For the most part, however, the mission has been mutually beneficial, Border Patrol and Guard members say.
Recently, Captain Tom Butler of the Ohio National Guard was helping to extend a graded, dirt road along the border fence here. Earlier, his team had helped to seal a tunnel that drug traffickers had burrowed under the fence. The projects have given him a sense of satisfaction.
“This will increase their response and make it safe,” Butler said of the projects. “And that does feel good.”
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