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Border enforcement: Fewer Guard troops, more aerial surveillance

by Daniel González - Dec. 20, 2011 11:10 PM
The Arizona Republic

The Pentagon next month will begin pulling most of the 1,200 National Guard troops stationed along the Southwest border since 2010 and replacing them with military helicopters and airplanes to help spot and catch illegal border crossers and drug smugglers.

The shift in strategy, announced Tuesday, is intended to maintain the Pentagon's commitment to assisting the Border Patrol in a way that will cost less but be more effective in beefing up border security, Defense Department and Department of Homeland Security officials said.

The aircraft can cover more ground than troops stationed in fixed positions on the border, the officials said.

The change, however, poses a political risk for President Barack Obama heading into the 2012 presidential election. Some Republicans have characterized having even 1,200 Guard troops as inadequate and criticized him for not doing enough to strengthen border security.

In June 2010, Obama authorized up to 1,200 National Guard troops to be deployed along the Southwest border, including roughly 560 in Arizona, while additional Border Patrol agents also were hired and trained. Administration officials have repeatedly credited those and other efforts for a sharp drop in apprehensions of illegal immigrants, an indication fewer people are trying to enter the country illegally.

Some Republicans criticized the Obama administration for not placing more National Guard troops on the border. Tuesday's announcement that the Pentagon plans to reduce the total number of National Guard troops from 1,200 to fewer than 300 by the end of March drew fresh criticism.

"The Obama administration's drawdown makes securing our southern border more difficult to achieve," U.S. Rep. Ben Quayle, R-Ariz., said in a statement. Quayle is vice chair of the House's border-security subcommittee.

He said illegal immigration is down mostly because of the economy, not because of "major advancements in border security, as the administration is claiming."

Gov. Jan Brewer said National Guard troops have helped improve border security. She said this is the wrong time to be removing them because "too many American communities remain under threat from illegal immigration and Mexican cartels that traffic in drugs and humans."

National Guard troops on the ground and aerial support are both needed and "the sacrifice of either is shortsighted," she said.

Cost and effectiveness

Administration officials on Tuesday said replacing National Guard troops with military aircraft will reduce costs and increase effectiveness on the border at a time when illegal immigration has fallen sharply. The Department of Defense is under pressure to cut hundreds of billions of dollars from its budget.

In fiscal 2011, apprehensions on the Southwest border fell to 340,252, one-fifth the level reported in fiscal 2000.

In Arizona, the main gateway for illegal border crossers, Border Patrol apprehensions fell to 129,118, the lowest number in 17 years.

The aircraft are part of a new strategy aimed at toughening border security through the increased use of aerial surveillance and reconnaissance, the officials said.

Since the summer of 2010, about 1,200 Guard troops have been positioned strategically along the border, where they stood watch at observation posts and relayed illegal border activity to Border Patrol agents. They did not take part in actual arrests or interdiction.

Under the new strategy, National Guard helicopters and fixed-winged aircraft will serve as a deterrent and be used to fly surveillance and reconnaissance missions along the border to spot illegal border activity. Crew members will relay that information to Border Patrol agents on the ground. The aircraft also will be used to transport Border Patrol agents to rugged or roadless areas more quickly. The additional air surveillance also will provide greater ability to see drug- and human smugglers approaching from Mexico, officials said.

The Border Patrol already uses aircraft, including unmanned drones, to patrol the border. But the additional aerial surveillance provided by the National Guard will augment those efforts, said David Aguilar, deputy commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

It "will take us to greater capabilities to secure the border at a level unseen before," Aguilar said.

Troop deployment

The Obama administration originally authorized 1,200 National Guard troops to be deployed for one year through the end of June 2011. The deployment was extended twice for three months through the end of December. The total cost for the 18-month operation was $180million.

Paul N. Stockton, assistant secretary of defense for Homeland Defense and Americas' Security Affairs, said the Pentagon has allocated $60 million to deploy National Guard aircraft along the border next year.

The goal is to end the National Guard's role on the border by the end of 2012 as the Border Patrol continues to increase the number of agents and add technology, officials said.

As of August, there were 18,152 Border Patrol agents assigned to the Southwest border, more than twice the 8,580 in 2000.

The Border Patrol is in the process of hiring and training 1,000 new agents.

Aircraft patrols

Pentagon officials refused to say how many National Guard aircraft will be used to patrol the border, saying the number is still being determined.

That makes it difficult to gauge how effective the National Guard aircraft will be, since the Border Patrol already uses aircraft on the border, analysts said.

"Is this somebody playing politics or is this doing something smart? I can't tell you," said James Carafano, a homeland-security expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Erik Lee, associate director of Arizona State University's North American Center for Transborder Studies, said deploying National Guard aircraft could be a political move aimed at deflecting attention from the removal of Guard troops on the border.

"Political considerations here in December 2011, with the election less than a year away, almost always plays into these kinds of decisions, no matter the administration," Lee said. "That is definitely a part of this."

Michael Lytle, a border expert at the University of Texas at Brownsville, said replacing National Guard troops with aircraft is a "good tradeoff" because spotters looking for illegal border activity can cover more area from the air. The 1,200 Guard troops on the border also were criticized by some border-security advocates as being inadequate.

"The question is how many (aircraft will be used) and where are they going to be?" Lytle said.

"It makes sense," Lytle said of the move. "Intuitively, (aircraft) can get out in remote areas and cover a lot of areas. That is the upside of this. And if it does save us money, so much the better. And lastly, it shows the administration is still making the commitment to support these operations."

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