Concerns and Costs Mount as National Guard Watches the Border

Manager of Policy and Advocacy

January 21, 2015

‘Keeping Their Eyes on the Brush’

The National Guard has been deployed along our southern border at various times in the past eight years. President Bush deployed 6,000 National Guard members in 2006 and President Obama deployed 1,200 in 2010. In those cases the president sent the National Guard to the border and the federal government covered the cost.

In October, at the direction of Gov. Rick Perry, the Texas National Guard began Operation Strong Safety. The stated goal of this operation was to deploy 1,000 Texas National Guard members along the Texas-Mexico border to “deny Mexican cartels and their associates unfettered entry into Texas between the ports of entry, as well as reduce the power of these organizations, whose success depends on their ability to operate on both sides of the border.” But in reality they were deployed as a response to last year’s influx of Central American migrants, most of whom were women and children.

Despite the stated mission of Operation Strong Safety, the Guard cannot stop or detain individuals who are crossing the border illegally. This has led to reports that troops are bored, and that Texas taxpayers are spending $18 million a month to have their Guard on the border, just “keeping their eyes on the brush.”

Lt. Col Joanne McGregor, a spokeswoman for the National Guard based in Texas, told the Los Angeles Times, “There’s a lot of confusion out there about what our role is.”

So just what can the National Guard do? “Alert other agencies if they witness illegal activity.” No matter what type of criminal activity they witness, they will alert the Texas Department of Public Safety, which will then alert the appropriate federal or local agency. Therefore, instead of aiding the Border Patrol in its mission and acting as a force multiplier, the deployment of the National Guard has served only to create confusion and hurt the local economy by scaring away business development and tourism.

This is not the first time a National Guard deployment has not worked. Presidents Bush and Obama both deployed and eventually withdrew the National Guard from the border. During those deployments, the Guard was not allowed to make arrests either. According to a Government Accountability Office report, morale suffered and concern arose that if the Guard’s tour were extended, it would hurt recruitment. Also, the State Department worried about harming relations with Mexico because it “could create a perception of a militarized U.S. border with Mexico.”

Given Customs and Border Protection’s $12 billion yearly budget, record levels of Border Patrol agents and militarization along the border, border crossings at 40-year lows and the Guard’s inability to take action, reports that the Texas National Guard will be withdrawn from the border in coming months come as no surprise. Changing demographics as well as significantly increased trade and commerce at U.S. land ports of entry necessitate more nuanced border policies. Smart enforcement and border security, coupled with immigration reforms that promote legal immigration, can improve security at the border and make our ports of entry more efficient for commerce.

Whether it is done by states or the Federal government, merely throwing additional resources at the border is not the answer.