NOGALES - Government officials on Friday showed off a site where National Guard members have been deployed near the Mexican border, despite criticism that the troops will do nothing to stem the tide of illegal immigration.
The first troops began their mission on Aug. 30, and no member of the media had been allowed to see firsthand what they've been doing despite repeated requests from dozens of outlets.
On Friday, the Border Patrol at last granted access to a site where four troops were stationed in a desert area about a mile away from the bustling southeastern Arizona border city of Nogales.
At the site, media members outnumbered the troops, and surrounded the only one who would answer questions, although he declined to provide his name and said he personally hadn't seen any illegal activity during his deployment.
Extra eyes, ears
One Guardsman at the site stood on a dusty overlook peering into binoculars with an M-16 slung over his arm. He looked at the rolling hills surrounding Nogales, both on the Arizona and Mexican side. Reporters were allowed at the site for about 20 minutes before being escorted away.
The troops have been acting as the "extra eyes and ears" of the Border Patrol. They have no arrest power, and the guns they carry are only for self-defense. Their mission is to remain at "strategic locations" and look for and report any suspected illegal immigrants to the Border Patrol, whose agents make the arrest.
The 532 troops in the state are part of President Barack Obama's plan to beef up border security by stationing 1,200 National Guard members along the border from California to Texas; all the troops are in place in the four border states, performing the same mission.
But many question just how big an impact the troops will have at the porous border, especially in Arizona. The state is the busiest crossing point for illegal immigrants, and the Border Patrol says between 40 and 50 percent of all immigrant arrests each year on the border are made here.
Arizona state Sen. Russell Pearce has been a sharp critic of the deployment and the National Guard's inability to make arrests, calling the troops a "welcome wagon" for illegal immigrants.
Pearce, a Republican, said the only way to stop illegal immigrants is to put 30,000 troops on the border with arrest power.
"They're military, and instead of letting them do their job, we let them down there with typewriter ribbon and oil cans," said Pearce, who wrote Arizona's controversial immigration legislation. "We send them overseas in harm's way but we don't let them defend our own borders in a proper manner?
"They've got political handcuffs on them," he added.
Pearce said the deployment is not much different from the time President George W. Bush's deployed 6,000 National Guard troops to the border in June 2006. Those troops also had no arrest power and were pulled out in July 2008.
One incident during their deployment disturbed Pearce. National Guard troops backed off and called in federal agents as gunmen approached their Arizona post.
While supporters of the troops' actions said the Guard members did as they were supposed to, Pearce questioned the point of having troops on the border if they can't confront such dangers.
"It's embarrassing to the military, it's embarrassing to America, and it's a shameful response by the federal government," he said.
About 400 illegal immigrants have been arrested in Arizona after being spotted by National Guard troops this summer. That not only makes the border safer but also makes Arizona and the rest of the nation safer, Victor Manjarrez Jr., chief of the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector, said at a press briefing on Friday.
"Any resources we get onto the border help us in all matters," Manjarrez said. "It's quite clear the National Guardsmen are going to improve capabilities. We've seen that in the very short time they've been deployed."
Southern Arizona rancher Ed Ashurst said as far as he's concerned, the Guard deployment hasn't affected border security one bit.
"I don't see them and I don't know anybody that has seen them. Where are they?" said Ashurst, whose property neighbors that of slain rancher Robert Krentz, who was gunned down in March while checking water lines on his property near the border.
Authorities believe - but have never produced substantive proof - that an illegal immigrant, likely a scout for drug smugglers, was to blame for Krentz's killing.
"My family's in danger, my property is trashed, my home has been burglarized multiple times and I don't see the federal government doing anything to help me or my neighbors," Ashurst said.
Cmdr. Jill Nelson, who heads the National Guard deployment in Arizona, said that the sites where troops are located were chosen strategically by the Border Patrol, and that they're mostly in remote locations where ranchers wouldn't see them.
"You're not going to see a line of Guard members outside the Tucson sector," she said.