National Guard troops assigned to help increase security along the U.S.-Mexico border are being pulled off the line a year earlier than promised, and some state and federal officials are not happy about it.
“The drawdown of Operation Jump Start’s strength level is ill-timed and should be halted and re-examined,” Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano wrote in a letter last week to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.
“Arizona remains a problematic border in the Southwest region, and the long-planned drawdown in personnel and patrol is premature,” she said.
Miss Napolitano said President Bush’s deployment of the Guard troops in her state had “made real progress” in cutting the number of people sneaking illegally into the country, and noted that the Border Patrol is not yet up to the manpower totals promised by the presidentially mandated program.
The reductions, which began July 1 and will be completed by Sept. 1, will result in a cut of Guard troops in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas from 6,000 to 3,000 — half of that promised by Mr. Bush in 2006.
In Arizona, the nation’s most popular alien- and drug-smuggling corridor, the number of troops will be cut from 2,400 to 1,200.
Mr. Bush ordered the National Guard troops’ deployment while the Border Patrol recruited, hired, trained and assigned 6,000 new agents, a recruitment goal the agency expected to reach by the end of 2008.
The White House did not return a call yesterday for comment, but officials at Homeland Security told reporters the Guard troops being withdrawn have been assigned to administrative support or maintenance work and are being replaced.
“I reject the assertion that the gradual phaseout of the National Guard is going to have a corresponding impact on criminal activity at the border,” said spokesman Russ Knocke. “We have more Border Patrol agents than when we started Operation Jump Start, more vehicle barriers, more personnel.”
Members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation also have asked Mr. Bush not to cut the number of National Guard troops stationed along that state’s border with Mexico.
“If we prematurely reduce the number of Guard personnel, it will be difficult to maintain recent achievements,” Sen. Jeff Bingaman, New Mexico Democrat, said in a letter to Mr. Bush, noting that the number of illegal aliens apprehended at the New Mexico border had declined since 700 Guard troops were deployed.
“Although we are moving in the right direction, I do not believe there are enough Border Patrol agents on the ground in New Mexico yet to justify a reduction of National Guard personnel by over 50 percent,” he said.
Last month, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said the number of illegal aliens caught trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border dropped by 24 percent. CBP credited increased border-security efforts for the decline, including the addition of new agents and added technology, combined with the deployment of the National Guard troops.
From Oct. 1 through June 30, Border Patrol agents apprehended 682,468 illegal aliens, compared with 894,496 during the same period last year.
While arrests declined, at the same time the amount of drugs seized on the border increased, with Border Patrol agents seizing more than 1.47 million pounds of marijuana (a 27 percent increase) and 9,514 pounds of cocaine (a 22 percent increase).
CBP spokesman Mike Friel, in announcing the decline in apprehensions, said the agency continued to enhance border security through a “comprehensive approach of implementing innovative programs,” including an expansion of Operation Jump Start.
Operation Jump Start was designed to free up Border Patrol agents for expanded protection along the 1,951-mile Southwest border. The National Guard troops were assigned to build additional roads and fences, add cameras and sensors, conduct aerial reconnaissance and provide medical aid and communications support.
They also performed administrative duties, gathered intelligence from border cameras for agents to act upon, assisted at highway checkpoints and served on entry-identification teams.
Bob Wright, former Minuteman Civil Defense Corps organizer who helped create a new border vigil organization, the Patriots’ Border Alliance, called the decision to pull the National Guard troops “another broken promise by this government.”
“The commitment was for two years,” Mr. Wright said. “The little bit of effort they put into it worked. It was certainly a start to have our border protected. Just their presence is a deterrent. Pulling them out is irresponsible.”