By Sgt. Jim Greenhill, USA
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M., Sept. 20, 2006 – The Department of Homeland Security has seen a drop in the number of illegal immigrants crossing the U.S. border with Mexico for the first time, and the National Guard has made the difference, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said here Sept. 18. "For the first time, we are seeing a reduction in the flow of illegal immigrants," Chertoff said during the 128th General Conference of the National Guard Association of the United States. "This is the first real ... sign we've had of success since we began this effort. It could not be done without the National Guard."
The National Guard's support to the U.S. Border Patrol through Operation Jump Start -- "dramatic help," Chertoff called it -- is just one reason Americans hold Guard members in high esteem, he said.
"Perhaps never has the critical role of the National Guard -- at least in my lifetime -- been demonstrated to the people of this country as it has during the past year," the secretary said. "The National Guard is now recognized by the public as a group of heroes, a group that can step up and handle all missions, whether it's something that nature throws at us or something that terrorists throw at us, overseas or here at home, or whether it's just the pressure of economic migration at the southern border."
Calling the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks a turning point in Americans' lifetimes and a reflection of a war that was already under way between a radical ideology of hate and the United States and the West, Chertoff said the Guard immediately stepped up. "I remember what a comfort it was to see the National Guard on duty," he said.
Because the Guard faces so many important missions, it will not stay on the border any longer than necessary, he said. Chertoff also outlined how his department is permanently boosting border security.
"We face a very significant challenge," Chertoff said, "thousands of miles, some of it through some very inhospitable terrain and a problem with respect to managing the border that goes back 20 years."
The DHS fix includes using new police technology such as sensors and vehicle barriers, increased manpower, additional tactical infrastructure such as fences, roads and lights and stronger enforcement of the nation's immigration laws.
"We have at long last ended the pernicious policy of catch-and-release," Chertoff said. "That was demoralizing, and it was self-defeating. Now we catch, detain and remove everybody who is here illegally that we catch at the border."
Some 9,000 Border Patrol agents were on duty Sept. 11; more than 12,000 are now; 18,000 are promised by the end of 2008, he said.
"Within a short period of time, we will be announcing (a) new 21st century high-tech program to bring the kinds of tools that we've refined in other areas in national defense to the border," Chertoff said.
Ramping up a permanent improvement in border security takes time, he said. "The National Guard has stepped in to give us the kind of immediate support that we have long expected the Guard to be able to offer."
Guard members are providing surveillance, operating detection systems, working in entry identification teams, analyzing information, assisting with communications, and giving administrative support to the Border Patrol.
"This literally multiplies the eyes and ears that help the Border Patrol agents on the front line deter and respond to illegal entries," Chertoff said. "What this allows us to do is to take the Border Patrol away from these critical but back-office missions and put them on the line where they can actually intercept, apprehend and remove the migrants ... coming across illegally."
Up to 6,000 troops have been helping the Border Patrol since August, a mission expected to continue for about two years. "As we bring the Border Patrol on line, we will be excusing you from duty at the borders of this country," the secretary said.
Meanwhile, the National Guard is working with DHS on a second vital task. "The second is getting our emergency preparedness and response capabilities ready for another catastrophe, whether it be a natural catastrophe or a manmade catastrophe," he said.
Chertoff said local response takes the lead. "State and local governments have the primary lead in a disaster," he said. "That includes the National Guard when called up by the governor."
However, the secretary said, synchronization between all agencies must improve. "Never again do we want to have federal, state and local officials introducing themselves for the first time when the hurricane is hitting," he said.
Several improvements are under way, including:
-- The National Guard Bureau and DHS are synchronizing assessment and communications capabilities;
-- NGB and DHS have completed joint training exercises;
-- NGB and DHS have worked together on evacuation planning;
-- NGB liaison officers are stationed full-time at DHS headquarters in Washington and at the Federal Emergency Management Agency and in Louisiana, where Hurricane Katrina recovery continues;
-- NGB is supporting information collection and reconnaissance; and
-- The Guard has participated in pre-hurricane exercises in five FEMA regions.
Chertoff thanked Guard members for what they do for America. "You blend uniquely," Chertoff said, "and your civilian skills and your military determination and training are wrapped together in a spirit of volunteerism which has characterized this nation from its founding over 200 years ago."
(Army Sgt. Jim Greenhill is assigned to the National Guard Bureau.)