When the Obama administration announced in December that it would draw down the number of National Guard units that patrol the southern border, critics said the decision would leave Texas vulnerable to spillover violence from Mexico.
The administration, which last month reduced the number of guard troops on the border from 1,200 to about 300, defended the move as a step toward better efficiency. The mission of the guardsmen was shifted from ground surveillance and assisting the U.S. Border Patrol to primarily aerial surveillance efforts.
But as the debate on how to best secure the border with Mexico continues, a new government report says that the use of National Guard troops on the border can hinder recruitment efforts and pose a challenge to long-term border security planning.
The report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, also says that the presence of active duty guards on the border may lead to the perception that the border is militarized, which could hinder binational agreements between the U.S. and Mexico aimed at fighting organized crime on the border.
Officials also cited benefits associated with the effort, including filling in personnel gaps until potential Border Patrol agents were trained and deployed, and providing necessary training for military personnel in an environment similar to those they would see in combat and helping to build relationships with other law enforcement agencies.
In a written statement to the U.S House Homeland Security subcommittee on border and maritime security, however, Brian J. Lepore, the GAO's director of defense capabilities and management issues, argued that recruitment could be affected because potential recruits may be against using out-of-state guardsmen on an “involuntary status” for long-term missions, citing National Guard officials.
Lepore also noted that Customs and Border Protection officials who work with National Guard units say their temporary status makes long-term border security planning challenging.
“These impacts are due to difficulties of incorporating the National Guard into a strategic border security plan, given the variety and number of missions that the National Guard is responsible for, including disaster assistance,” Lepore wrote.
Lawmakers who support the drawdown argue that the shift makes sense because of these limitations and because the U.S. Border Patrol is better staffed now than it has ever been. In fiscal year 2011, there were more than 21,400 U.S. Border Patrol agents on the nation’s borders, including about 18,500 on the Southwest border. Federal regulations also prevent National Guard troops from making arrests, which limits their effectiveness.
“This is why I think that aerial support makes sense,” said U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, the subcommittee’s ranking member. “Instead of having 1,200 [soldiers] on the ground, you have 300 flying planes.”
Cuellar said there are at least 12 National Guard helicopters currently operating in Texas, in addition to several more fixed-wing aircraft. Major Gen. John F. Nichols told the committee that since the aerial operations commenced in March, the Texas portion of the mission, known as Operation River Watch II, has resulted in assisting Customs and Border Protection in the apprehension of 1,144 illegal immigrants, the prevention of 25 human smuggling cases and the seizure of more than two tons of marijuana.
The scope of the operation covers more than 200 miles of border from Laredo to the Gulf Coast. During the National Guard’s operations before the drawdown, it was credited with assisting in the apprehension of about 17,900 illegal immigrants and the seizure of about 56,300 pounds of marijuana on the southwest border from July 2010 to June 2011.
Cuellar and Texas National Guard officials are also looking into constructing a Joint Interagency Training Center in South Texas. Cuellar said he and others envisioned the multimillion-dollar project as a center where state, local and federal agencies could train recruits and veteran agents, specifically from the Rio Grande Valley, Laredo and Corpus Christi, without having to send them out of the state.
Lt. Col. Amy Cook, the public information officer for the Texas National Guard, said officials began discussing the project this week and that it is still in the discussion phase. A land deal in southwest Texas that would have procured the necessary terrain for the effort fell through, she said, and stakeholders are still debating where to look to break ground.