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GAO questions Guard's border presence, locals welcome it

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GAO questions Guard's border presence, locals welcome it

  • Army Maj. Gen. Peter Aylward speaks with Arizona Army National Guard Soldiers near Nogales in September 2010.
    U.S. military photoArmy Maj. Gen. Peter Aylward speaks with Arizona Army National Guard Soldiers near Nogales in September 2010.

The National Guard began a second 90-day extension of its work along the border this weekend, a move welcomed by border officials and questioned in a recent Government Accountability Office report.

Guard troops that were originally to have been pulled off the border on June 30, but had that deployment extended to Sept. 30 and then extended yet again, to the end of this year.

To Douglas Mayor Michael Gomez, that’s good news. He said ranchers in the area have told him things are better with military on the border.

“The ranchers say it has helped to get more officers on the field. They sit out on lookouts and process paperwork and are able to chase them (illegal immigrants) down,” Gomez said.

But in a Sept. 12 report, the GAO gave a lukewarm review to continued military presence on the border, citing problems with the current situation and declining to make any recommendations on future action.

The report, prepared at the request of lawmakers, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the Department of Defense had spent more than $1.35 billion on two separate border operations since 2006, Operation Jump Start from 2006 to 2008 and Operation Phalanx in 2010 and 2011. It estimated that another $10 million was spent on Defense support of border drug-fighting efforts.

Operation Jump Start cost the Defense Department $1.2 billion to deploy 6,000 guardsmen, who assisted in the capture of 186,814 illegal immigrants – 11.7 percent of all such apprehensions on the Southwest border during that period – and more than 158 tons of marijuana, 9.4 percent of the total.

Operation Phalanx cost $110 million for the deployment of up to 1,200 Guardsmen, who helped catch 17,887 illegal immigrants and confiscate more than 28 tons of marijuana, 5.9 percent and 2.6 percent of the totals, respectively.

Despite those apparently successes, the GAO said there are problems surrounding the continued deployment of soldiers to the border. For one thing, it said, soldiers are limited in what they can do. They generally are not allowed to perform law-enforcement duties, so they may act as spotters relaying information to Border Patrol agents, for example. That means two people have to be sent out instead of one, the GAO noted.

The report also noted friction between the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense. It said Homeland Security officials were concerned that military assistance was hit and miss, while Defense officials worried about “mission creep” because of concerns that “there is no comprehensive Southwest border security strategy” in place by DHS.

But a DHS official said the border strategy “should come as no surprise to DOD as they have been actively engaged in providing support through the deployment of the National Guard.”

The GAO report also noted concerns by the State Department that continued Guard presence could lead to the appearance that the border is being “militarized.”

But local officials said last week that any concerns raised in the GAO report are offset by the benefits of a military presence on the border.

Yuma Mayor Alan L Krieger said that having the National Guard on the border spreads the workload of guardsmen and allows agents to do their work.

“Simply put more boots on the ground, and that is what we need to secure our border,” he said.

Krieger said that Yuma works well with law enforcement, including the National Guard, and believes that idea needs to be expanded.

“All of the elements we have here can be applied to the other sectors (of the border) and we need to make that commitment to secure the border and we need to make the investment,” Krieger said.

Gomez said that while the National Guard’s presence helps on the border, more needs to be done. But he said that can be a hard case to make to officials who don’t live on the border and don’t know how bad it can get.

“Anyone that’s away from the border doesn’t know what’s going on here every day and every night,” Gomez said.

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