DOUGLAS, Ariz. — In April, President Donald Trump announced he was ordering National Guard troops to the U.S. border with Mexico.
“We’re going to do some things militarily,” Trump said. “Until we can have a wall and proper security, we’re going to be guarding our border with the military.”
Here, in this dilapidated former mining town on the Mexican border, that vague directive has been translated — at least officially — to orders to help quell the smuggling operations in Agua Prieta across the fortified fence and in what is still regarded as one of America’s most corrupt locales.
They have been carrying out a variety of tasks assisting the U.S. Border Patrol in the months since their initial deployment, but all with one thing in common: They’re as far away from the border as possible. In reality, the hundreds of troops deployed in southern Arizona are keeping up the rear, so to speak; in one assignment, soldiers are actually feeding and shoveling out manure from the stalls of the Border Patrol’s horses.
Back in April, Trump hailed the deployment as a “big step,” claiming, “We really haven’t done that before, or certainly not very much before.”
But that isn’t accurate, either: Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama sent the guard to the border under similar circumstances; Bush in far larger numbers than Trump — some 6,000 compared with up to 4,000 now, and Obama to the tune of 1,200.
In Arizona, at least, the troops are being kept at an even safer distance than during previous deployments, veterans of past missions say, and assigned supporting roles that can free up Border Patrol agents for field work.
“That is the biggest difference from last time, when they sent soldiers to a hill and said, ‘Hey, look towards the border,’” Capt. Macario Mora of the Arizona National Guard explained to me on a recent visit to the Border Patrol's Douglas Station, which is responsible for 40 miles of the mountainous border and nearly 1,500 square miles that includes Douglas — population about 17,000 — and its urban terrain of ramshackle homes, warehouses and junkyards.
“There is a false narrative that we are doing ride-alongs,” Mora said. Indeed, the troops are not permitted to take part in patrols or to participate in any operations to detain the men, women and children being trafficked by criminal organizations across the border or trying to slip undetected into Douglas.
None of the troops are even armed — “and there is no anticipation that will change,” Mora told me.
Some are helping wherever they can, such as those assigned to tend to the Border Patrol’s horses stabled in the area for mounted patrols (everyone’s favorite is Snuggles the Mustang).
Other soldiers, like Sgt. Jonathan Sanchez, 35, a cook, are performing maintenance on the Border Patrol’s heavily used vehicles.
“We fix flats,” he explained on a steamy afternoon after completing his shift in the motor pool a few miles north of town.
Other troops with proper security clearances have also been given a crash course in how to monitor a network of remote cameras deployed along the border and report anything suspicious — all from the Border Patrol’s air-conditioned tactical operations center out on Highway 80.
“Most have never run a surveillance system like this,” said Staff Sgt. Thomas Cider.
A few National Guard helicopters and crew have also been enlisted to join the Border Patrol fleet for aerial surveillance, but more troops are clearing vegetation, serving as office clerks and making basic repairs to Border Patrol facilities.
They are freeing up some of the 3,600 Border Patrol agents assigned to southern Arizona that normally carry out such tasks for enforcement duties.
But it is also a strategy to keep the troops out of trouble.
Supervisory Agent Juan Curbelo, a 22-year veteran of the Border Patrol, recounted in the Douglas Station how criminal organizations on the other side of the border have grown more sophisticated and more violent as the U.S. has deployed additional personnel and new technology over the years to make illegal cross-border traffic more difficult.
“They scout us quite a bit from the south side,” he reported.
He was here during the previous National Guard deployments and said that during each iteration the Border Patrol has been more innovative in finding useful things for the troops to do that keep them from interacting with people crossing the border illegally.
The reality, multiple officials related, is that the part-time soldiers are not well-suited for what is largely a law enforcement mission — and they worry that inexperienced weekend warriors might, for instance, mistakenly kill civilians or create an international incident.
“It definitely helps mitigate the risk of the National Guard running into conflict,” Mora explained of what he called the “much safer environment” they are in, miles away from the actual border.
It’s a lesson learned from those previous National Guard deployments.
In 2006, Bush sent 6,000 National Guard troops to the border — the first time military forces were expressly sent to help stanch illegal immigration, as opposed to the illegal drug trade. Then in 2010, Obama, under pressure from lawmakers from border states following the murder of an Arizona rancher, reluctantly dispatched some 1,200 troops to combat smugglers who had become increasingly sophisticated and violent.
Trump’s order called for as many as 4,000 troops from various states to help police the border stretching from California to Texas.
But still casting a shadow over the deployments is the 1997 incident in which a Marine Corps Patrol in Texas killed a local sheepherder while on border duty.
“You learn from each of these deployments,” Border Patrol Agent Stephanie Dixon told me in explaining why guard forces are used so selectively and in support roles.
Keeping troops as a rear guard on the border has “always been part of the mix,” said Tim Dunn, a sociology professor at Salisbury University in Maryland, who has studied previous military deployments to the border.
He describes the public message in previous deployments like this: “We are just here to support. We are not going to be out in the field.” Or “we will be out there in limited way and not in direct contact with the public.”
But it is even more pronounced this time around, Dunn said. Despite Trump’s amped-up rhetoric around immigration and border issues such as drug smuggling, “They have reined it in more.”
Not everyone is happy about it.
A major union representing about 15,000 Border Patrol Agents has been the most vocal, calling the decision to limit what the troops can do “a colossal waste.”
Last time, said Brandon Judd, the Border Patrol Council’s president, “they were allowed to do a lot more than they are under the Trump administration. They were allowed to be in lookout and observation posts. They were allowed to be out grading the roads and mending fences. They were allowed to be our eyes and ears, freeing us up.”
The effort has also been slow going.
Mora said that a little over 200 Arizona National Guard troops have been put to work so far — out of total of 682 that have been authorized. The rest, he said, have yet to arrive due to what he called “other training requirements.”
Finding useful things for them to do has also been a challenge, explained Capt. Aaron Thacker, a spokesman for the Arizona National Guard.
“Deployment includes the process of going through medical evaluations, administrative reviews, ensuring security background checks are up to date if required, so on and so forth,” he said. “And then they have to be married up with a job that their skill set can do.”
“Not to mention, additional training may be required,” he added.
The effort is also funded only through September — and it is not clear if the mission, which is mostly paid for out of the Pentagon budget, will continue.
But a few of the guard troops may get down to the border after all.
“Some are getting recruited,” Mora said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if some become Border Patrol agents.”
Editors Note: What a waste of military manpower. When the National Guard is called up, they need specific duties that fall in line with their assignment of guarding the border. They also need to be armed. The reason the Border Patrol has a difficult time recruiting is because you have to live near the border. I find it difficult to name a rural border town that isn't a shithole.