Governors Resist as Guard Readies to Leave Border

Two years ago, thousands of National Guard troops went to the southwest U.S. border with Mexico to secure it from illegal entry. That temporary assignment ends in July. It's been hailed as a success. The Border Patrol says it now has the numbers to take over, but border state governors say they want the troops to remain.

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A lot of people have been kept from getting through the border this past couple of years, and that's because thousands of National Guard troops have been stationed at the U.S.-Mexico border while the Border Patrol beefs up its own force. That program, called Operation Jumpstart, will end next month. And border state governors want to know why, since most everyone who supports the border build up considers it a success. NPR's Ted Robbins reports.

TED ROBBINS: Two years ago, some sections of the border separating the U.S. from Mexico outside the twin cities of Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Senora consisted of a few strands of barbed wire. A jeep trail ran alongside the border on each side. A couple of more trails - ruts, really - ran across the border.

Mr. JOSE GONZALES (Public Affairs Officer, Border Patrol): And this is a very popular area for vehicle drive throughs, because once you get on these two rutters at night with no lights on, you just creep into town.

ROBBINS: Jose Gonzales is a Border Patrol public affairs officer. We're driving on a new 40-foot-wide, all-weather road right next to the border. We stop and Gonzales points out a new fence made of steel posts - or bollards - sunk into the ground, plus lighting. Gonzales says it used to take up to 15 minutes to apprehend someone crossing illegally. Now, he says, it takes seconds.

Mr. GONZALES: Because of the infrastructure, the roads, the lighting and all these things that the Guard brought to the table that we didn't have before.

ROBBINS: Master Sergeant Ken Clemmons also sees the difference he and other Guardsmen have made.

Master Sergeant KEN CLEMMONS (National Guard): I was here last year on a mission, as well, twice. And to see the progression that we've made in the past year is just phenomenal, I think.

ROBBINS: Clemmons is part of a Guard unit from Ohio building a guard rail along the edge of the new road. They're among the last units on the border. Operation Jumpstart is scheduled to end July 15th. The Border Patrol says the Guard presence has helped lower the number of illegal crossers apprehended in the Nogales by at least a third. In the Yuma area, it says Guard assistance has helped lower apprehensions by more than two-thirds.

At the same time, though, narcotic seizures are up - on a record pace, in fact - which is one reason Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano and fellow border state governors have asked the White House to extend Jumpstart.

Governor JANET NAPOLITANO (Democrat, Arizona): Myself, Governor Schwarzenegger, Governor Richardson, we cannot fathom why you would adhere the July 15 deadline.

ROBBINS: President Bush has always said that Jumpstart was a two-year mission. The Border Patrol admits it could use continued help from the Guard, but it also says it has enough new agents and infrastructure to continue securing the border without the Guard. Governor Napolitano says the government just doesn't want to pay for the troops anymore.

Gov. NAPOLITANO: It's just a method of withdrawing federal dollars from the border, and that border has been under federalized in that respect for too many years. And we're going to keep advocating that the federal government keep the Guard there and keep paying for it.

ROBBINS: According to the National Guard, Operation Jumpstart has cost about $1.2 billion. And a Guard spokesman in Washington points out that the Guard has lots of other missions. As we speak, it's helping with flooding in the Midwest and wildfires in California. Plus, 50,000 Guardsmen and women are in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In an interesting twist, though, Nogales Border Patrol supervisor Alan White says the deployment here has paid off for his agency in an unexpected way.

Mr. ALAN WHITE (Border Patrol Supervisor): You had a considerable amount of OJS Jumpstart soldiers come on as Border Patrol agents.

ROBBINS: The Border Patrol has been on a recruiting tear since 2001, when Congress and the president ordered it to double in size. It hasn't been easy to find qualified agents. Operation Jumpstart has provided a rare recruiting pool - people who are already familiar with the border.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

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