Il­le­gal cross­ings an eye-opener for Vir­ginia Guard troops

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Jerry Seper

NO­GALES, Ariz. — Sgt. Steven W. Ja­cobs of the Vir­ginia Na­tional Guard, one of thou­sands of guards­men from 30 states de­ployed along the south­west border with Mex­ico, says he ar­rived here with “no idea” of how vul­ner­a­ble Amer­ica is.

“I be­lieve 95 per­cent of the peo­ple in this coun­try have no clue of what it’s like down here,” says Sgt. Ja­cobs, a bear of a man with a visegrip hand­shake. “I know I had no idea how many peo­ple come over this border ev­ery day and the weird things they do to get across.

“They’ll do any­thing to get into the United States, of­ten com­ing over with just the clothes on their back,” he says. “And it’s not just here; this hap­pens all along the border. I was very sur­prised at what I saw when we first ar­rived, but I am here to pro­tect my coun­try, and I will stay as long as they need me.”

Sgt. Ja­cobs, who lives in Fort A.P. Hill, Va., is among 350 Vir­ginia Na­tional Guard sol­diers and air­men de­ployed along the border as part of “Op­er­a­tion Jump Start.” Pres­i­dent Bush’s $760 mil­lion plan calls for Na­tional Guard troops to be sent over the next two years to the U.S.-Mex­ico border from Cal­i­for­nia to Texas. The goal: al­low­ing the U.S. Border Pa­trol to move more agents into front­line po­si­tions.

Sgt. Ja­cobs and Spc. Jes­sica Jessee, also of Fort A.P. Hill, are as­signed to an en­try-iden­ti­fi­ca­tion team re­spon­si­ble for a pop­u­lar cor­ri­dor for il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion along the border just west of here.

Mem­bers of the team work 24 hours on and 24 hours off to fight this in­va­sion of il­le­gal aliens while fac­ing tem­per­a­tures that rise above 100 de­grees, fear­some thun­der­storms that send rivers of wa­ter down nearby gul­lies and swarms of al­ways-present flies.

Us­ing binoc­u­lars, night-vi­sion equip­ment and global po­si­tion­ing sys­tems, the team seeks to spot any­one try­ing to en­ter the coun­try il­le­gally and to re­port their po­si­tion to the Border Pa­trol. About a third of the Na­tional Guard force is as­signed to en­try-iden­ti­fi­ca­tion teams.

“It’s a long, hard shift, but we have been very suc­cess­ful,” Spc. Jessee says. “We do the best we can to keep tabs on what is go­ing on in our area, and the Border Pa­trol has re­sponded quickly to our calls.”

More than 150 il­le­gal aliens used to cross nightly into the United States over a ram­shackle metal fence at the base of a hill here just be­low a ridge, on which the team set up an ob­ser­va­tion post. On the hill­tops just south of the border, Mex­i­can spot­ters train equally so­phis­ti­cated equip­ment on the Guard, di­rect­ing smug­glers of aliens and drugs to safer ar­eas.

“They’ve got their own spot­ters watch­ing us, try­ing to catch us when we’re not look­ing,” Sgt. Ja­cobs says. ‘Sig­nif­i­cant dent’

Alien smug­glers, he says, some­times send peo­ple along the border to see how the Guard troops re­act and how quickly the Border Pa­trol re­sponds. But he says his team has put a “sig­nif­i­cant dent” in the num­ber of aliens cross­ing into his sec­tor, with the daily count drop­ping from 150 to fewer than 20.

Watches all along the border have re­ported sim­i­lar de­clines since the Na­tional Guard’s ar­rival, says Border Pa­trol Chief David V. Aguilar, who notes that last week ap­pre­hen­sions were down by 45 per­cent since the start of Op­er­a­tion Jump Start.

“Na­tion­ally, we are down by 2 per­cent,” Chief Aguilar says. “But this is the im­por­tant num­ber: Since the day the pres­i­dent an­nounced Op­er­a­tion Jump Start [. . .] our ap­pre­hen­sions are down by 45 per­cent. How­does that com­pare to the sea­sonal down­trend? Well, last year, it was 25 per­cent. So the in­crease in the down­ward trend is, in fact, pos­i­tive; it’s real, and it’s im­pact­ing.”

Op­er­a­tion Jump Start was de­signed to free up Border Pa­trol agents for ex­panded en­force­ment du­ties along the 1,951-mile south­west border.

Na­tional Guard troops are build­ing roads and fences, adding cam­eras and sen­sors, con­duct­ing ae­rial re­con­nais­sance and pro­vid­ing med­i­cal aid and com­mu­ni­ca­tions sup­port. Guard troops also per­form ad­min­is­tra­tive du­ties, gather intelligence from border cam­eras for agents to act on, as­sist at high­way check­points, serve on en­try-iden­ti­fi­ca­tion teams and work as me­chan­ics at Border Pa­trol sta­tions, re­pair­ing well-worn trucks and cars.

The op­er­a­tion is ex­pected to give the Border Pa­trol time to re­cruit and train 6,000 new agents to bring its field strength to 17,000.

“We’re not putting up to 6,000 armed Na­tional Guards­men on the border as a show of force,” Na­tional Guard Bureau Chief Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum says. “We are in sup­port of a Home­land Se­cu­rity op­er­a­tion, or a Cus­toms and Border Pro­tec­tion op­er­a­tion.

“Prob­a­bly the big­gest thing we bring in terms of num­bers and ca­pa­bil­ity to the game are the ad­di­tional eyes and ears of the ini­tia­len­try teams,” Gen. Blum says. Border Pa­trol agents, he says, gain “greater sit­u­a­tional aware­ness of what is go­ing on in places where they could not go, or could not see, or could not hear what was hap­pen­ing be­fore.” Troop­ing to border

In May, Mr. Bush sent Congress a re­quest for $1.94 bil­lion in emer­gency fund­ing for border se­cu­rity. Be­sides money to pay for 6,000 new Border Pa­trol agents over the next two years, the pres­i­dent sought $770 mil­lion for the tem­po­rary de­ploy­ment of 6,000 Na­tional Guard troops.

Thirty of the 54 states and ter­ri­to­ries with Na­tional Guard units have sent troops to the border, where they are quar­tered in mo­tels and ho­tels. Mary­land sent 120 Na­tional Guard troops to Ari­zona for 60 days ear­lier this month.

Cus­toms and Border Pro­tec­tion Com­mis­sioner Ralph Basham, who over­sees the Border Pa­trol, says the Na­tional Guard met the pres­i­dent’s com­mit­ment of 6,000 troops by cur­rently de­ploy­ing 6,199 sol­diers and air­men on the border. The troops are “for­ward de­ployed,” he says, mean­ing they di­rectly sup­port the Border Pa­trol through sur­veil­lance, intelligence gath­er­ing, en­try iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, en­gi­neer­ing and other du­ties.

“The de­ploy­ment of the Na­tional Guard has made a pow­er­ful im­pact on the se­cu­rity of our south­ern border,” Mr. Basham says. “Fewer peo­ple are cross­ing our border, and this de­cline far ex­ceeds any changes in border cross­ing due to sea­sonal mi­gra­tion pat­terns.

“The Guard’s de­ploy­ment has en­abled more than 315 Border Pa­trol agents to move from back-of­fice ad­min­is­tra­tive func­tions to front­line border-en­force­ment ac­tiv­i­ties, fur­ther mul­ti­ply­ing the Guard’s im­pact.”

Al­though the troops are not in­volved di­rectly in law en­force­ment, Mr. Basham says their pres­ence led to the ap­pre­hen­sion of 2,296 il­le­gal aliens and the seizure of 64 ve­hi­cles, 14,496 pounds of mar­i­juana and 220 pound of co­caine. The agency is “on track” to meet Mr. Bush’s ob­jec­tive of dou­bling the num­ber of Border Pa­trol agents by the end of 2008, he says.

The Na­tional Guard’s pri­or­ity tar­get is Ari­zona, though troops are de­ployed along the border from Cal­i­for­nia to Texas. The Ari­zona-Mex­ico border is the na­tion’s most heav­ily trav­eled cor­ri­dor for il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion, ac­count­ing last year for about half of the 1.15 mil­lion il­le­gal aliens de­tained na­tion­wide. It also is a ma­jor drugsmug­gling route into the United States. ‘Eye-open­ing’ ser­vice

All of the 6,199 Guard troops sta­tioned in the border states vol­un­teered for the mis­sion. Among them is Spc. Travis Arnold of the Wis­con­sin Na­tional Guard, who also served a year in Iraq. He says he plans to help se­cure the border for two years.

“This cer­tainly has been an eye­open­ing ex­pe­ri­ence,” Spc. Arnold says. “Im­mi­gra­tion is not a huge is­sue in Wis­con­sin. It was the sheer num­ber of peo­ple com­ing over that border that sur­prised me the most. I had no idea how many peo­ple jump that fence ev­ery day.”

Spc. Arnold works eight-hour shifts at the Border Pa­trol field of­fice in No­gales. He and a part­ner, Spc. Kirstin Schultz, mon­i­tor live border-sur­veil­lance videos on more than 40 television screens.

Their job is to re­port to the Border Pa­trol any in­cur­sions by il­le­gal aliens or drug smug­glers.

“I didn’t re­al­ize just how quickly they come over the fences,” Spc. Schultz says. “We are the agents’ eyes un­til they make con­tact, and we can get them ad­di­tional help if they get into trou­ble.”

Sgt. Brian Eck­berg and Spc. Ti­mothy Reisinger, also mem­bers of the Wis­con­sin Na­tional Guard who work at the No­gales field of­fice, are as­signed to mon­i­tor the de­ten­tion area. They do re­quired pa­per­work on ap­pre­hended border crossers, main­tain de­ten­tion records and call for help for agents when they need it.

“We are free­ing up the agents to be able to do en­force­ment work in the field,” Sgt. Eck­berg says. “I feel we are ac­com­plish­ing a lot here for the agency and the coun­try.”

More than 200 il­le­gals a day are pro­cessed at the de­ten­tion cen­ter at the No­gales sta­tion. With 500 agents, the sta­tion is the agency’s largest and sits close to the border with Mex­ico. ‘Glad to be here’

Maj. Fay Lu­dens, a Na­tional Guard spokes­woman, says the troops “are glad to be here.”

“No­body is here who didn’t want to be here,” says Maj. Lu­dens, a mem­ber of the South Dakota Na­tional Guard who re­tires this month af­ter 23 years. “I think we have all learned a lot about the Border Pa­trol and how the Border Pa­trol and the Na­tional Guard can work to­gether.

“This call-out was a way for us to do some­thing in the United States, help­ing our own.”

Border Pa­trol spokesman Sean King says the Guard’s pres­ence in No­gales alone en­abled that field of­fice to free up 40 agents for en­force­ment du­ties along the border, a 10 per­cent staffing in­crease per shift. The in­creased man­power, he says, al­lows the of­fice to put agents in ar­eas “not now pa­trolled.”

“The Na­tional Guard has given us the abil­ity to strengthen our over­all ef­fort to se­cure the border,” Mr. King says.

Ap­pre­hen­sions dropped by 17 per­cent in the No­gales of­fice’s 32mile ju­ris­dic­tion, he says, and 21 per­cent in the Tuc­son sec­tor, which in­cludes 281 miles of border.

Last year, the Tuc­son sec­tor ac­counted for about half of the 1.15 mil­lion il­le­gal aliens ap­pre­hended on Amer­ica’s south­ern and north­ern borders — about 1,300 ar­rests ev­ery day.

Gen. Blum, the Guard’s bureau chief, de­scribes Op­er­a­tion Jump Start as a law-en­force­ment op­er­a­tion rather than a mil­i­tary one. He says the Guard’s role is to pro­vide mil­i­tary sup­port to civil­ian law en­force­ment, as di­rected by the pres­i­dent and the sec­re­tary of de­fense.

“We are not do­ing Border Pa­trol law-en­force­ment work,” Gen. Blum says dur­ing a press con­fer­ence in Wash­ing­ton. “We’re do­ing ev­ery­thing else that other badge­car­ry­ing Border Pa­trol peo­ple used to have to do. We are re­plac­ing them so that they can get badges back to the border.”

Michael Con­nor / The Wash­ing­ton Times

Vir­ginia Na­tional Guard Spc. Kyle Cook of Powhatan, Va., scoped out the border at No­gales, Ariz., as Border Pa­trol agents Curt Trame, Ri­cardo Gal­lego and Sean King stopped to check on the new re­in­force­ments. Spc. Cook is among 350 Vir­ginia Guards­men on the border.

Michael Con­nor / The Wash­ing­ton Times

A fence sep­a­rat­ing No­gales, Ariz., from No­gales, Mex­ico, runs for only a few miles along the pop­u­lated ar­eas of the border be­fore turn­ing to a few strands of barbed wire in the desert. The tower houses mul­ti­ple video cam­eras that can be mon­i­tored re­motely.

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