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California National Guard Keeping A Low Profile In Border Mission

Members of the California National Guard line up behind El Centro Chief Borde...

Photo by Steve Walsh

Above: Members of the California National Guard line up behind El Centro Chief Border Patrol Agent Gloria Chavez, May 14, 2018.

The California National Guard is keeping a low profile as they deploy to the border. In a state with strong differences with the Trump administration on immigration policy, guardsmen will spend much of their time behind closed doors, rather than patrolling the border.

The National Guard quietly arrived in San Diego in early May. Volunteers drove to the armory in Kearney Mesa in their own cars from Camp Roberts in Central California. They attended a briefing before fanning out to find hotel rooms.

The Guard has released only short, written updates to the public. The troops, who are mainly volunteers pulled from around the state, have appeared publicly only briefly.

A week after they arrived, the first guardsmen marched out of the El Centro Border Patrol Station two hours east of San Diego.

They stood silently as the backdrop for a press conference called by the local head of Customs and Border Protection, Gloria Chavez.

RELATED: California National Guard Begins Border Training

“CBP continues to welcome the National Guard to the southwest border,” Chavez said.

The troops then filed out, without speaking.

Call it cooperation in the age of Twitter. While the president challenges California Jerry Brown’s position on just about everything — especially immigration — behind the scenes the state and federal government quietly work through their differences. Of the 400 national guard troops Brown authorized, 250 have arrived at the U.S. Border Patrol districts of El Centro and San Diego.

Chavez laid out some of the ground rules. Far from the image of Humvees riding along the border, the majority of California guardsmen won’t even be outdoors.

“The 51 national guardsmen behind me will assist Border Patrol with logistics and administrative support,” Chavez said.

They will analyze intelligence and act as dispatchers.

Under the rules negotiated with the Pentagon, they will monitor cameras on the U.S. side of the border, but not cameras that look across the border into Mexico.

“The National Guard will not be armed. They’re in a mission support role behind the scenes,” she said.

The fact that guardsmen will not be armed is not new. Tim Dunn with Salisbury University has researched militarization of the border and said the Pentagon has been reluctant to arm troops since 1997. That's when Marines from Camp Pendleton shot and killed a rancher outside Redford, Texas whom they mistook as a smuggler.

RELATED: America's Wall: Decades-Long Struggle To Secure US-Mexico Border

“So they scaled back the use of ground troops and allowed all the other forms of military assistance. Intelligence support, construction, training equipment operation. Anything short of armed ground troops could be done,” Dunn said.

It stayed that way until the Pentagon resumed some armed patrols in the years after Sept. 11, 2001, Dunn said.

The Secretary of Defense or one of his deputies now has to sign off on this type of mission. The Pentagon estimates it will cost $182 million to keep guard troops activated at the border through September. The government spent roughly $1.35 billion to send the guard to the border during the Bush and Obama Administrations, Dunn said.

“What are we getting for that? The apprehensions are at historic lows. Even though they’ve been up a little this year, they’ve been low since 2011,” he said.

Border Patrol officials in California say numbers don’t tell the whole story. San Diego Sector Chief Rodney Scott said his district is understaffed. He’ll use most of this round of Guardsmen as radio dispatchers. He said he also has a recruiting problem because of the high cost of living in San Diego.

“I have significant vacancies in that area that they can fill. On top of that, we have significant vacancies, anyway. I don’t think it’s any secret that we have some recruiting challenges,” Scott said.

Even when the Guard performs mundane tasks like changing the oil in vehicles, that frees up agents, he said.

“We have a very small mission contingency. We don’t’ have a big engineering group for example. We either have to take an agent out of service or contract it out,” Scott said.

RELATED: It’s Not The First Time California Deploys National Guard To Border Missions

This kind of cooperation is fairly routine. Guardsmen already monitor cameras at stations all the way up the California coastline, Scott said.

“We’ve got a long relationship with the National Guard. We’ve been working with them. My entire career there has been some type of guard presence and that’s been 25 years,” he said.

This first wave of troops will mainly act as dispatchers in San Diego. Scott sees the guard as a temporary solution, but one he'd like to see continue for a while. He said he hopes Operation Guardian Support will last beyond its Sept. 30 deadline.

Operation Guardian Support is the latest in a long, and sometimes troubled, history of cooperation between the Pentagon and Homeland Security.

This story is part of our American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration on in-depth military coverage with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and The Patriots Connection.


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Photo of Steve Walsh

Steve Walsh
Military Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover military and veterans issues for KPBS and American Homefront, a partnership of public radio stations and NPR. I cover issues ranging from delpoying troops along the California border to efforts to lower suicide rates among veterans.

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