WASHINGTON – As President Barack Obama continues to mull returning thousands of National Guard troops to America's Southwest border, one expert says the surge is unnecessary – pointing to plunging apprehension rates of illegals, more U.S. Customs and Border Protection boots on the ground than ever, the lengthening border fence, enhanced electronic surveillance and increased cooperation by Mexico.
Edward Alden, Bernard L. Schwartz senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told a Heritage Foundation audience this week that despite all the brouhaha, apprehension rates now on the border are at their lowest level since the mid-1970s.
“We are on track this year for about 550,000 apprehensions,” explained Schwartz. “And, remember, any number of those can be people who are apprehended multiple times. But 550,000 apprehended is actually just slightly lower than what we show in 1975, which was before illegal immigration really mushroomed onto the stages as a huge issue in this country.”
Schwartz, who is well aware of the storied violence spawned by the powerful Mexican drug cartels, ticked off why in his estimation the nation is on the right track without National Guard convoys racing to converge on the border.
As to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), he noted that between 2004 and this fiscal year, that agency’s budget almost doubled – $6 billion to more than $10 billion.
He highlighted a huge increase in resources for customs and border protection.
“In 2001, we had between 9,000 and 10,000 Border Patrol agents. That number actually stayed fairly static for the first couple of years after 9/11, and the last three or four years, it has doubled to more than 18,000. It is on track to hit 20,000 very soon. It makes the border patrol by far the largest law enforcement force in this country.”
The expert further noted that in the early 1990s, the nation had fewer than 3,000 Border Patrol agents. “So, we are talking about a six-fold increase in the number of Border Patrol agents in the last two decades. … They are ramping up faster than any other organization in the federal government.”
What’s more, Obama’s Department of Homeland Security is slated to double the size of its Border Enforcement Security Task Forces (BEST) operating along the U.S.-Mexico border.
According to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), BEST “incorporates personnel from ICE; U.S. Customs and Border Protection; Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA); Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; Federal Bureau of Investigation; U.S. Coast Guard; and the U.S. Attorney’s Office along with other key federal, state, local and foreign law enforcement agencies.”
Homeland Security also is enhancing ICE’s “fugitive operations teams” operating in the region – tripling the number of intelligence analysts and quadrupling the number of border liaison officers working with Mexican law enforcement officials.
In this effort, as many as 500 federal agents from different federal agencies will be redeployed from various postings around the country to the Southwest border, and about $200 million will be redirected to fund a purported crackdown on the cartels and drug trade.
On the Electronic Surveillance/Fencing Front
“If you look at the secure border initiative what is now called ‘SBI Net,’” instructed Schwartz, “Boeing in 2006 won a $30 billion contract to set up a network all along that border, and at some point we are going to move it to the northern border with Canada as well – a network of sensors, radar, cameras, and detectors.”
The expert noted that, originally, fencing was kind of a limited urban initiative – the goal being to prevent illegal immigrants from being able to run across the border and quickly disappear in the southern suburbs of San Diego.
As to the congressional mandate to build about 700 miles of fence, Schwartz said we are getting close. “The figures I have are from December 2008, in which we built 526 miles. I think we are probably another 100 miles beyond that at this point. We are very close to the completion of that fencing.
“That is an expensive project. I mean the GAO estimates that over the next 25 years – if you put together the cost of construction, the cost of maintenance – we are talking about $50 billion,” he added.
However, Steven Bucci, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense, is not so sure that sending troops back to the border is contraindicated.
“We’ve got four very nervous governors and a whole bunch of mayors and a whole bunch of citizens who would really feel a lot more comfortable if they saw more guys, you know, good guys in uniform wandering around,” argued Bucci, who spoke from the same panel platform as Schwartz.
But those extra cadres of “good guys” wouldn’t have to be Guardsmen, he emphasized.
“… not the Guard guys with their rifles, but all of the policemen of various sorts, you know, that they are very comfortable with out there. The Guard could help free up more of those guys and get them out of the buildings, out of the garages, out of the administrative offices and out doing what they all signed up to do – and would really like to do – which is out there protecting that border.”
Using the Guard in this backup role makes sense to Bucci – if for no other reason than it would not antagonize Mexico.
“It would be a huge mistake to put federal troops down on that border,” Bucci argued. “The Mexicans would see it for what it was – a complete militarization of the border.”
A Winning Model
The backup role for the Guard troops has already proven itself as the winning model in Operation Jumpstart, which kicked off in June 2006 and ended in July 2008.
At its peak, there were as many as 6,000 soldiers and airmen on the mission at one time. In addition to aiding in the apprehension and seizure of thousands of illegals, their vehicles, weapons and drugs, more than 19 miles of road, 38 miles of fencing and 96 miles of vehicle barriers built and close to 720 miles of road were repaired.
It was so successful that for the first time in the history of the Department of Defense the country is now budgeting, programming and planning specifically for domestic Guard missions.
“We always planned for the overseas war mission and we did the domestic missions with what was left over,” Bucci explained.
Ironically, Bucci recounted, at the start of the original Operation Jumpstart, the governors didn’t like it because they thought that they were going to lose control of their National Guardsmen. The CBP unions thought that it was going to hurt their members’ job security, and the Army saw it just as another outflow of money that they were going to have to pony up for in the midst of two very busy wars.
But all that negativism was to change.
“At the end of the first year when we were supposed to transition from 6,000 troops on the border to 3,000, all of the governors, including our present secretary of homeland security, went nuts,” Bucci said. “They demanded that we stay at 6,000 and they fought, and finally the president said. 'I’m sorry – we made a commitment. We are going to go from 6,000 to 3,000 after 12 months, and so we are going to do it.' So we did.
“They continued, and at the end of the second year everybody went crazy again because they wanted to keep them. They did not want the mission to end.”
Perhaps most of the positive sentiment had to do with just how that mission developed and was defined.
“The kind of jobs that the National Guard did was contrary to what everybody thought that they were going to do when they started. They thought that these kids were going to line up and shoot everybody as they came across the border.
“They did administrative work,” Bucci said.
The skilled Guardsmen and women hit the ground running, fixing the overworked vehicle fleet of the CBP. They built, did construction both in their own CBP insulations and elsewhere. They fixed roads.
“I went out to the border in California near San Diego and realized what they were doing was cutting the tops off of mountains and filling in valleys, Bucci recounted.
“They were moving hundreds of tons of soil to try and make roads relatively level so that the customs and border agents could get from point A to point B to do their jobs.”
Moreover, the troops, said the expert, provided additional eyes on the border.
“We had kids that were out on the border, you know, in observation posts looking under the likely avenues of approach or avenues of transit, and they also were there manning a lot of the electronic devices that the CBP has to monitor the border. They provided a whale of a lot of aviation logistics. …”
“If you used the National Guard in the same way we used them in Jumpstart – they weren’t doing enforcement, they weren’t arresting anybody, they weren’t chasing immigrants or drug runners or anybody else, but they were freeing up every possibly CBP agent to get out there and do what they are paid to do – I think that you would see a great benefit,” Bucci concluded.
For his part on the panel, Ray Walser, senior policy analyst for Latin America for The Heritage Foundation, noted that the ascendency in the last 10 years of the Mexican Cartels is a story of rather scary proportions.
But just how to fit thousands of National Guardsmen into an already complex and broad-reaching enforcement landscape may be a different matter, he opined.
“You have the national drug threat assessment noting that the Mexican cartels have become the chief organized crime threat in the United States – reporting on the presence of cartel entities within 230-something cities,” he instructed.
The devil is always in the details.
“Where would the National Guard fit into the series – the multitude of sort of initiatives that we have running at this particular point?” he asked. “We have everything from the Southwest Border Initiative. We have Operation Gunrunner. We have armored crusaders. We have integrated border enforcement teams. We have ongoing law enforcement operations such as Accelerator and Project Reckoning. These are some that have been passed. I’m sure there are new undertakings by DEA and FBI targeting the cartels.”
Schwartz thinks there may yet be a new and expanded role if Operation Jumpstart II ever gets rolling.
“We are very much a part of the problem,” Schwartz said. “There is this back and forth movement of guns and money headed south and drugs headed north -- illegal migrants and so forth.
“Will the National Guard play a factor in this sort of new age of co-responsibility and …does it have a role to play in the southward movement also?” he asked.
“If we are going to make a determined effort to stop arms smuggling and stop laundered cash from going back across the border, I can imagine the Guard playing a huge role in that. You can have Guard troops who are checking American trucks and American passenger vehicles going south.
“I’m not certain that I am advocating that because there would be a lot of unintended consequences. This is a huge border and there is a lot of commercial crossing which is incredibly valuable with our trade and Mexico’s trade.”
The bottom line, said Bucci, is that the U.S. has a tremendous asset in its National Guard.
“I have worked with the National Guard both at the highest levels and down to the troops and I can tell you that they are some of the greatest American patriots you will ever meet.
“They are more than willing to sacrifice, and if the leadership of this country says guys we need you to go do this again because we think that it will help the country, [they] will be lining up to go – because that’s just the kind of folks that they are – despite the stress, despite the strain, despite the sacrifice.”
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