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National Guard Assists with Security Along U.S.-Mexico Border

October 2, 2006 at 6:30 PM EST
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JEFFREY KAYE, Reporter, KCET: With American soldiers at their posts in a bone-dry desert, this looks like a scene from Iraq or Afghanistan. But the troops are on duty in Arizona, just a stone’s throw from the U.S.-Mexico border.

They’re among 6,000 National Guard personnel assigned to Operation Jumpstart, the Bush administration’s high-profile troop deployment to help stem the tide of illegal immigration from Mexico.

DAN HEATON, National Guard Spokesman: The mission here is to secure the border.

JEFFREY KAYE: Guard spokesman Dan Heaton is a staff sergeant with the Michigan Air National Guard.

DAN HEATON: If somebody sees that the border is being guarded, the border is being defended, and they decide not to cross, you know, we’ll view that as a success. It’s difficult to quantify it, but clearly that’s a success.

JEFFREY KAYE: Nine hundred National Guard soldiers and airmen are assigned to the Yuma sector of the Border Patrol. Its 118-mile-long stretch has been a major crossing area for illegal migrants.

Just last year, in the border town of San Luis, Arizona, Border Patrol surveillance cameras recorded people surging across the border illegally, overwhelming agents. The Border Patrol still catches an average of about 80 migrants a day in this sector. These five men were apprehended recently by a single sharp-eyed Border Patrol agent who noticed their footprints just as the sun was setting.

BORDER PATROL AGENT: And I was about, I don’t know, maybe 175 yards from them.

A visible and tangible deterrent

JEFFREY KAYE: But arrests of illegal immigrants have droppedsignificantly since the National Guard arrived this summer. The Border Patrol'sYuma sectorchief, Ron Colburn, believes that's one indication that fewer migrants aretrying to cross.

RON COLBURN, U.S. Border Patrol: We already have tangible, measurableresults. Now we're going into the fourth month straight where we've seen abouta 75 percent decline in illegal activity in the Yuma border area, and I'm very pleased. I cannow say that that is at least a measurable piece of intelligence.

JEFFREY KAYE: The National Guard personnel have beendeployed to support the Border Patrol. The soldiers' duties include repairingand maintaining Border Patrol trucks and operating a string of 25 fixedsurveillance cameras along the international boundary.

On the border itself, Guard members are building higher andlonger fences and constructing roads. Their round-the-clock observation postsare meant to serve as a visible deterrent to those seeking to cross the borderillegally.

KYLE LYONS, National Guard: When they look over the wall andsee us, that should be our whole job right there, is just for us to be here.

JEFFREY KAYE: The M-16s the soldiers carry are forself-defense, in case troops encounter drug-runners or bandits.

In both the U.S.and Mexico,critics of Operation Jumpstart have complained the use of the National Guard tocombat illegal immigration represents a militarization of the border. Guardpersonnel say they have clear instructions on how to deal with any migrantsthey encounter.

SGT. JERRY HATFIELD, National Guard: If they come in andthey walk over there, we just call up Border Patrol and say, "They'regoing north, right beside our position."

JEFFREY KAYE: You can't walk over there and put the cuffs ona guy or give chase?

SGT. JERRY HATFIELD: Nope. No, no, no, no. Definitely...

NATIONAL GUARD MEMBER: Can't touch them.

NATIONAL GUARD MEMBER: We're not law enforcement here, sir.

JEFFREY KAYE: The deployment of the National Guard is justthe latest in what's been a steady increase in security along America'ssouthern border. For 12 years, in addition to fence construction, the United Stateshas added Border Patrol agents, beefed up aerial surveillance, installedsophisticated cameras and sensors, and constructed more border fortifications,like this project meant to stop cars from crossing off-road.

It's also purchased portable watchtowers, called skyboxes,bristling with surveillance gear.

CESAR DIAZ, U.S. Border Patrol: They know we're here. Andthey still attempt and figure they're going to sneak past by, but they stillget caught.

Mixed blessings of border security

JEFFREY KAYE: Residents of San Luis, a town of 25,000, saythe increased border vigilance has brought tangible changes. For one thing,there's been a dip in crimes associated with illegal migrants.

HERIBERTO BEJARANO, San Luis Police Department: We've seen adecrease in calls for service in our residential areas closest to the border.

JEFFREY KAYE: Heriberto Bejarano is San Luis' chief ofpolice.

HERIBERTO BEJARANO: Stolen vehicles, stolen bikes, you know,small crimes that, again, in their efforts to go undetected by Border Patrol,they would change their clothing and move on. They would steal vehicles and tryto get further north.

JEFFREY KAYE: But some crimes, according to law enforcement,have become more serious as a direct result of stepped-up border enforcement. ASan Luis police detective took us to a home that he had discovered was used asa stash house by gangs smuggling migrants into the United States.

BORDER ENFORCEMENT DETECTIVE: They'll stay here for a coupleof days until transportation is provided. They'll try to move them out atnight.

JEFFREY KAYE: The detective, who asked not to be identifiedbecause he works undercover, says smugglers are becoming more violent towardslaw enforcement and seeking higher payments from their human cargo.

BORDER ENFORCEMENT DETECTIVE: Usually, they're chargingbetween $1,000 per person, and each person makes up their own price range,where they want to go, how they want to get there and everything.

JEFFREY KAYE: The effects of stepped-up border enforcementare also being seen in agriculture, an industry which relies heavily on a largeillegal workforce.

JACK VESSEY, Farmer: We've been affected for the last fewyears on what we call a labor shortage. It's been difficult to find harvestcrews and people to harvest our crop.

JEFFREY KAYE: Jack Vessey farms 10,000 acres just five milesfrom the Mexican border in California's Imperial County. Some of his workforce used tomake daily commutes -- legal and possibly illegal -- back and forth across theborder. They no longer make the trips, he says, because they're scared of theNational Guard.

JACK VESSEY: You've got to realize some people that heardthis think that there's going to be guys with machineguns sitting on the borderwaiting to shoot them, and that's what some people feel about when they crossthe border. They don't like doing it.

JEFFREY KAYE: Even as some hired hands prepare his fields toplant winter vegetables, Vessey fears Operation Jumpstart will cause a moresevere labor shortage. He says he pays the California minimum wage, at least $8.50 anhour, and can't afford to raise payments to attract more workers.

JACK VESSEY: We're competing on a global level, and I haveto compete with lower wages paid in different countries. Right now, we're ableto do that because of the quality that was produce and food safety reasons. Andif we're to raise our wages, how are we going to compete and sell our productto your Wal-Mart or your Costco?

Finding any way in

JEFFREY KAYE: If greater border vigilance has deterred somewould-be migrants, others, like these young men, vow to keep trying to cross. Thispark in San Luis Rio Colorado, directly acrossthe border from San Luis, Arizona, is a gathering point for peopleplanning to make the journey.

The would-be migrants, from deeper in Mexico, knowlittle about Operation Jumpstart. But like Martin Perez, a 25-year-old fatherof two from the Mexican state of Guanajuato, they say they're willing to riskeverything to get into the United States.

MARTIN PEREZ, Immigrant (through translator): I'll get tothe United Statesdead before I come back here, because here it's the worst. Do you understandme? We can't earn enough to eat. That's why we're here. We're trying to getsomething that's better.

JEFFREY KAYE: Asked how he plans to evade the formidabledefenses along the border, Perez puts his faith in chance.

MARTIN PEREZ (through translator): What matters is luck, doyou understand? That's what counts for us, whether there's more security ornot. If there's a chance for us to cross to improve our lives, maybe we willmake it, maybe not.

TONY REYES, Yuma County Supervisor: You can't drive aroundwithout, you know, seeing someone in a uniform.

JEFFREY KAYE: Back in San Luis, Arizona, YumaCounty Supervisor Tony Reyes says history shows that immigrants will keepcoming any way they can. He expects that those who want to cross will learn howto evade the new security measures.

TONY REYES: It'll have a deterrent effect. They'll befellows in Lukeville, you know, the next town where there isn't fences andstuff. And then we'll finish securing this area, and we'll start with a newone, because, again, you haven't solved the problem.

JEFFREY KAYE: People are going to go around?

TONY REYES: People are going to go around, or up on top, orunder. And the problem may seem like it gets smaller, you know, because fewerpeople are coming in. I'll give that much. But you're not solving the problemanyway.

Keeping a close eye on the guard

JEFFREY KAYE: The politically charged issue of bordercontrol is keeping the spotlight on Operation Jumpstart. To show their support,many state and federal officials have made pilgrimages to the border to meetand greet National Guard units assigned to the mission.

This recent visit was by Missouri Governor Matt Blunt, whospent a few minutes shaking hands and posing for pictures with soldiers fromhis state's guard.

FLASH SHARRAR, Yuma Patriots: Lord, we continue to ask youto protect this great country and that you use the patriots in a positive way.

JEFFREY KAYE: There's also a populist, grassroots dimensionto the politics of border policing. Local citizen groups, such as the YumaPatriots, which have maintained their own border patrols for the last 15months, say vigilance is needed, not only to stop illegal immigration, but tomake sure that government gets the job done.

FLASH SHARRAR: We have put our lives on the line to protectthis border, and it's about time they got here. I think they're about 10 yearstoo late. So we're going to keep an eye on them to make sure they do their job.

JEFFREY KAYE: That job is supposed to keep the troops on theborder for the next two years, as newly hired Border Patrol agents move in toreplace them.