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A new role for the undermanned Border Patrol

- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 17, 2006

National Guard troops deployed along the U.S.-Mexico border as part of President Bush's plan to free U.S. Border Patrol agents have been assigned bodyguards -- some of the same agents the soldiers were sent to relieve.

Several veteran Border Patrol agents in Arizona told The Washington Times they were issued standing orders to be within five minutes of National Guard troops along the border and that Border Patrol units were pulled from other regions to protect the Guard units -- leaving their own areas short-handed.

The agents, who refer to the assignment as "the nanny patrol," said most of the Guard troops are not allowed to carry loaded weapons, despite a significant increase in border violence directed at Border Patrol agents and other law-enforcement personnel over the past year.

The National Border Patrol Council (NBPC), which represents all 10,000 of the agency's nonsupervisory agents, said the presence of more than 6,000 Guard troops on the border has allowed a few hundred agents to be reassigned from administrative to field duties, but that "about the same number are now assigned to guard the National Guard troops."

"Other agents are being assigned to supervise the National Guard troops, who are performing different administrative tasks," said NBPC President T.J. Bonner, a 28-year Border Patrol veteran.

"Overtime has been authorized for these duties, but was not authorized for patrolling the border prior to the arrival of the National Guard."

Nearly 6,200 Guard troops have been deployed along the border from California to Texas as part of "Operation Jump Start," Mr. Bush's $760 million plan to increase the number of Border Patrol agents actually patrolling the 1,951-mile Southwest border.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) spokesman Mike Friel yesterday said National Guard troops are not at the border in a law-enforcement capacity, but only to report illegal entries to the Border Patrol.

"The Border Patrol's priority mission is to detect, deter and apprehend individuals crossing illegally into the United States," Mr. Friel said.

"It makes sense that agents would be nearby the National Guard members who are there to be our eyes and ears in order to respond immediately and apprehended the illegal aliens."

About a third of the Guard force is assigned to entry-identification teams, which monitor major illegal-immigration and drug-smuggling corridors along the border -- mostly in Arizona. Using binoculars, night-vision equipment and Global Positioning Systems, the teams seek to spot anyone entering the country illegally and report their position to the Border Patrol.

The troops also are building roads and fences, adding cameras and sensors, conducting aerial reconnaissance, providing medical aid and communications support, performing administrative duties, gathering intelligence from border cameras, assisting at highway checkpoints, and working as mechanics to repair the agency's trucks and cars.

The operation was designed to give the Border Patrol time to recruit and train 6,000 new agents to bring its field strength to 17,000.

CBP Commissioner Ralph Basham has said the Guard's deployment had "made a powerful impact on the security of our southern border," adding that fewer people were crossing illegally into the United States. He also said the Guard's deployment had enabled more than 315 agents to be moved from back-office administrative functions to frontline border-enforcement duties.

Mr. Bonner also said Border Patrol agents were ordered to chase away the "scouts" posted by alien and drug smugglers in the hills on the border, who report by radio the location of law-enforcement personnel. He said that assignment began a few days before the National Guard troops were deployed.

"While I'm sure that Border Patrol management will claim these measures are being undertaken to ensure the safety of the National Guard troops, it is obvious they will also push the smuggling traffic to other areas," he said. "Since many areas of the border are still not being observed or patrolled, it is no more difficult today to avoid detection and apprehension than it was before the deployment of the National Guard."

"This should not be interpreted as criticism of these dedicated soldiers. Unfortunately, they are being used as political pawns by this administration in its ill-advised quest to sell its myopic and harmful immigration-reform package," he said.

Mr. Bonner also said he doubted there was a "legitimate need" for 6,000 administrative personnel to support a work force of fewer than 12,000 agents.

He and the senior agents also questioned whether Operation Jump Start has been as successful as Bush administration and Border Patrol officials have suggested, challenging estimates last week that the apprehension of illegals aliens dropped by 45 percent since the National Guard's arrival.

"The statistics they cite in support of their claims of success are extremely misleading," Mr. Bonner said, adding that apprehensions from May to July were compared with those from March to May.

"There always is a significant seasonal decline in apprehensions at that time of the year, generally about 30 percent. This year's decline was somewhat higher, about 45 percent, primarily because of the record-breaking heat in June and July, not the presence of the National Guard troops."

Mr. Bonner said in comparing apprehensions from Oct. 1 to July 31 with the same period in 2004-2005, apprehensions are down 3 percent, which he called "statistically insignificant."

"It is much more accurate to say that a million illegal aliens were caught trying to sneak across our borders this year, and several million more did so successfully," he said.