On US-Mexico border, illegal crossings drop
One phrase sums up both the chief achievement and complaint of National Guard soldiers and airmen posted along this dusty strip of border with Mexico: "Nothing happening."Skip to next paragraph
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That's good news for Operation Jumpstart, President Bush's eight-month-old initiative to reinforce America's southern border with National Guard troops until enough border patrol agents are trained. The extra troops appear to be discouraging people from trying to cross illegally.
Apprehensions of illegal immigrants in the Yuma sector – one of the busiest for the past two years and a top target for the operation – have dropped 62 percent in the last four months compared with the same period a year ago. That's the biggest drop of all nine border patrol sectors on the frontier with Mexico and double the average decline. The amount of marijuana seized in the Yuma sector fell 36 percent for the same period.
The figures for the entire southern border – a 27 decline in apprehensions and a 51 percent increase in marijuana seized – are encouraging, experts say.
"If those numbers hold [for the entire fiscal year], that would indeed represent a significant drop," says Luis Cabrera, an expert on transnational justice issues at Arizona State University in Tempe. "We're pretty sure there's a deterrence effect."
President Bush visited this busy crossing point last May to introduce his program to supplement US border patrol agents with National Guard soldiers and airmen for two years (6,000 the first year, 3,000 the next).
Of those, 2,400 are posted in Arizona, which has the two top-priority sectors in the operation – Tucson and Yuma.
"We have had 49 states participate in the border mission in Arizona, with 7,758 [troops] coming through Arizona," says Maj. Paul Aguirre, spokesman for Operation Jumpstart in Arizona. "Roughly 40 percent of the effort is in Arizona."
Moreover, some 500 additional border patrol agents have bolstered the efforts in the Yuma sector this past year, as have added infrastructure – National Guard helicopters, miles of triple fences, lights, cameras, and sensors.
Still, it's the highly visible National Guard troops that most here say are having the biggest deterrent effect. With their limited support roles (they can't apprehend nor arrest individuals), they are freeing border patrol agents from routine duties, such as fence-building and repair, so they can spend more time nabbing illegal infiltrators.
A few miles from town along the dusty levee between the Colorado River and the Salinity Canal, two National Guard soldiers man a station. (The media can no longer identify the soldiers because border patrol intelligence officers have learned that smugglers have placed a $30,000 to $50,000 bounty on their heads.) The two Guardsmen from North Carolina are dressed in camouflage fatigues. They carry M-16 rifles and high-powered binoculars that enable them to see clearly across to Mexico – often to see smugglers looking back at them through their binoculars.
They stand in front of a Chevy Blazer painted in camouflage next to their tent. Their shifts vary, but they are mainly deployed in groups of four for 48 to 72 hours. Two stand watch for four- or six-hour shifts while the other two sleep in the tent.
The North Carolina men, who were previously deployed to Iraq, have been posted here for the entire time.
The days "start to run into each other after a while. We basically observe and let border patrol know what we see," says one.
In the entire four months they've stood here, watching and waiting, they've seen only two families – four or five people in each group – attempting to cross. One of the men says it is difficult to report these people. "I wonder what would make me do that – climb into that icy cold river holding my child above my head? You can be compassionate, but you have to do your job, report them."