AZ National Guard begins border duties
PHOENIX -- Arizona National Guard soldiers have arrived at the border.
The first 33 are being assigned surveillance work, according to Lt. Valentine Castillo. Plans are to continue training a new batch and deploying them every week until there are 532 soldiers stationed in the area, a goal the Guard hopes to achieve by Oct. 1.
Mario Escalante of Customs and Border Patrol said the soldiers will be doing more than simply looking for people trying to enter the country illegally.
"They're there in positions that not only work to help us see better, to see what's going on, but they're also in positions that act as a deterrent,' he explained. "They're at a high point where it's visible for maybe folks who are attempting to cross to see them and say, 'You know what? I'm not going to cross through here.' '
The deployment part of 1,200 soldiers sent to the border by the president for up to a year, comes as the Obama administration is under fire, mostly by Republicans, for not doing enough to keep people and drugs from entering the country illegally. The issue of border security has become a prime political issue, especially in Arizona.
But Janet Napolitano, Obama's homeland security secretary, said Monday that things are far better now than when she was Arizona governor.
"There's a clear focus by this administration on the Southwest border,' she said in a telephonic press conference. Napolitano said that's proven by more contraband being seized even as fewer people try to enter the country illegally.
That didn't impress Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu.
He said that, even at reduced levels, there are still about 250,000 illegal immigrants being caught each year coming in to Arizona. And Babeu, a Republican, said based on Border Patrol estimates, that still means about 400,000 a year escape detection.
"They don't know who they are, where they're from or where they're going,' he said.
Babeu also said about 17 percent of those apprehended have some sort of criminal record. Extrapolating that out to those who get through, he said that translates to more than 60,000 criminal a year.
He prefers the plan offered by Sens. Jon Kyl and John McCain, both Arizona Republicans, which would put 3,000 Guard soldiers into just Arizona -- and for more than the maximum one year deployment now authorized for the 1,200 along the entire border.
Gov. Jan Brewer agreed.
"While the announcement today of the first group of 33 troops is welcomed, it is not enough, or tied to a strategy to comprehensively defeat the increasingly violent drug and alien smuggling cartels that operate in Arizona and across the United States,' Brewer said in a prepared statement.
Napolitano, however, ticked off a list of accomplishments of the administration she said is making the border more secure. These range from new technology, including additional unmanned aerial surveillance vehicles and "backscatter' scanning devices to the fact that the number of Border Patrol officers is now twice as much as it was just six years ago.
She said more needs to be done. And Napolitano pointed out that Congress earlier this month approved $600 million in new funding for border security.
Napolitano said, though, her agency won't just be "throwing resources out there.'
"That doesn't really tie into results,' Napolitano said.
"But when you tie your resources to getting good information, good intel, when you have a good working partnership with Mexico, Mexican law enforcement at the federal level, and when you have the kind of increases of boots on the ground, technology, infrastructure that we've seen, and now can add to, that is a very, very strong border presence,' she said.
Babeu, however, said he knows what works. And it's being played out in the Yuma sector of the border.
There, Operation Streamline results in all border crossers being detained for up to three weeks and then appearing before a judge before being deported. That criminal conviction, Babeu said, means someone caught reentering illegally faces up to two years in prison.
Napolitano said some of that $600 million would be used to expand Operation Streamline in the Tucson sector. With the current number of judges and prosecutors, courts can handle only about 70 cases a day; the remainder who do not have criminal records are simply deported.
Babeu conceded the cost, saying it would take $3.5 billion to fully implement what Kyl and McCain want to do. But he said it would enable federal agents to achieve "operational control' of the border.