The National Guard has a long history with the Southwest border. In 1916, when famed Mexican revolutionary Poncho Villa proved elusive after raiding several American communities, President Woodrow Wilson mobilized about 150,000 guardsmen to secure the border. Mired in logistical nightmares and low morale, the effort yielded mixed results, only to be aborted a year later as America turned its attention to a looming world war.
A century or so later, and the Guard is back on the border, though its impact and timelines remain equally uncertain.
“I would definitely say there’s mixed feelings about the mission,” said an Army Guard aviator who deployed to the border in 2020 and spoke on the condition of anonymity. “When you see the amount of migrants coming over, what we were doing is just a drop in the bucket.”
The Southwest border is really a tale of two missions: a prolonged federal effort, started under President George W. Bush in 2006, when guardsmen across the nation mobilized to active-duty status to support the U.S. Border Patrol and other federal agencies as they confronted swelling migration and drug and human trafficking from Central America and Mexico. And, more recently, a highly politicized mission at the state level, as Texas and Arizona governors hastily deployed guardsmen in 2021 to mitigate what they’ve declared a presidential failure to handle the crisis at the border.
What the missions share is an ambiguity about how long guardsmen might stay embedded in what is in essence a law enforcement matter. This is especially true of the federal mission, where tens of thousands of guardsmen have deployed at varying rates across four presidential administrations. The most recent iteration, initiated under President Trump, is now stretching into its fifth year.
“Over time you’ll see our presence diminish, and you’ll see Homeland Security take this over on their own,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told media during a November 2021 press conference.
But Austin also agreed to extend National Guard support at the border through September 2023, with no stated plan for the transfer of responsibilities. By most accounts, Border Patrol is eager for the help.
“They have the most thankless job in the country. It’s grinding, demanding work,” said the Army Guard aviator, who regularly performed aerial surveillance support to Border Patrol agents on the ground. “There was no lack of work for us. It was pedal to the metal.”
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The contributions of guardsmen on the ground didn’t go unnoticed either, some qualifying as nothing short of heroic. In March 2022, two North Dakota guardsmen deployed to Del Rio, Texas, were conducting surveillance when they observed five migrants tossed by driving winds and heavy currents on the Rio Grande River.
“We’ve heard stories that the water gets pretty rough, but I honestly wasn’t expecting it,” Spc. Luis Alvarado said in a North Dakota Guard statement.
Alvarado and Spc. Gracin Clem tied together two Border Patrol lifelines, casting them to the floundering migrants, as Alvarado, a Spanish speaker, shouted instructions. But the winds and currents proved too strong, pulling two of the migrants underwater. Clem then chose to swim the lifelines to the two migrants, rescuing them as the remaining migrants managed to cross safely.
“It wasn’t an option to watch these people drown,” Clem said.
The North Dakota guardsmen’s heroism speaks to another experience common to guardsmen deployed to the border: interaction with migrant populations and the compassion it evokes.
“Most of the time, I tried to view it as black and white, we’re trying to catch these people,” said the Army Guard aviator. “(But) when you see people giving their kids away to other people just to get them to the United States, it really sticks with you.”
Engagement with the migrant population is more immediate for many of the guardsmen deployed to state missions. While federally mobilized guardsmen are restricted to detection and monitoring and similar support roles, those on state orders are more directly involved in a policing capacity, an unusual and controversial role for Guard members.
“They are operating under state control as law enforcement,” said Theresa Cardinal Brown, managing director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, in a recent interview with Government Matters. “They are arresting migrants that they find on private property or other property under trespassing charges.”
At the center of the state border mission lies Operation Lone Star, launched by Texas Gov. Greg Abbot in March 2021 in response to what he deemed as President Biden’s failure to address an “invasion” at the border. At its height, about 10,000 guardsmen mobilized under state orders in support of OLS. As of November 2022 that number was closer to 6,000, but with a $4 billion price tag, it remains unprecedented in its scope and haste for a state mobilization.
“I’ve been part of previous border missions going back to 2014 when Gov. (Rick) Perry at the time made the largest state mobilization of troops to protect the border,” said a Texas Army Guardsman, speaking on condition of anonymity. “But in 2014 it was treated like an actual mobilization. We went through full SRP (Soldier Readiness Processing), training lanes, and all of that. But OLS, I was at Camp Swift for all of three days, maybe … A lot of the training was conducted after we arrived at the border.”
The escalation of OLS placed immense burdens on Texas Military Department planners. Reports of pay lapses, cramped housing and crumbling morale have plagued public perception of the massive Guard call-up. Though, recently, there have been signs of progress.
“I did go visit some of the base camps a couple times and those … looked straight out of my deployments to Kuwait and Iraq … lots of tents, temporary structures everywhere,” said the Texas Army Guardsman. “In the months since then, they’ve put up different types of structures and, at this point, there’s a lot of folks there because they want to be there. The money is pretty good.”
According to Gov. Abbot’s office, OLS “has led to 333,000 migrant apprehensions and more than 22,000 criminal arrests.”
The ever-present political rhetoric surrounding the mission, though, has fueled resentment among some guardsmen on the border, many of whom were involuntarily mobilized.
“I definitely don’t want to say that there are no migrants coming in or that we should open everything up, but the way the Guard keeps being utilized is highly ineffective,” said the Texas Army Guardsman. “There was just a lot of feelings we were simply being used for political means.”Read comments