In May 2006, President Bush addressed the nation from the Oval Office and, in cooperation with state governors, ordered the deployment of 6,000 National Guard troops to the border. This mission was known as Operation Jump Start, and it was a success. Given the rising drug violence emanating from Mexico and the incomplete nature of our border-security efforts, President Obama should take the same course of action.
Operation Jump Start was initiated because the United States did not have enough Border Patrol agents to secure the southwest border, which was being overrun with illegal aliens and drugs. Some estimated that in addition to the appropriate mix of technology and infrastructure, 18,000 agents were needed to secure the border (there were approximately 12,000 at the time of the president’s speech). The necessary political support and money existed to hire those additional agents, but training 6,000 people would take two years.
The National Guard filled this personnel gap. They assisted with important jobs like surveillance and reconnaissance, and built tactical infrastructure like roads, fences, and vehicle barriers. Their presence permitted Border Patrol agents to get back to the job of apprehending illegal immigrants and interdicting drug traffickers. The National Guard contributed to the apprehension of more than 176,000 illegal aliens and 321,000 pounds of drugs.
There is no question that significant gains to border security have been made since 2006. We now have about 18,000 agents, much of the tactical infrastructure that’s needed to secure the southwest border has been put in place, and U.S. aid has helped the Mexican government take a more proactive role confronting drug cartels in Mexico. This has made it harder for drug smugglers to operate, though it has resulted in increased violence at the border.
But there are three crucial components to our border-security strategy — personnel, tactical infrastructure, and technology — and our efforts cannot be fully effective until all are in place. We presumably have the requisite number of agents, but planned infrastructure and technology improvements (e.g., the virtual fence) are not complete. The president should dedicate more resources to expedite the development of infrastructure and technology. He should also address the security gap that occurs in the meantime, especially in light of increased drug violence. He can do this by working with our nation’s governors to deploy National Guard troops to the border.
As a team, the National Guard and the Border Patrol were able to significantly reduce apprehensions (currently, the best available measure of success that illegal crossings are decreasing). The National Guard’s presence made our country safer and our border more secure between 2006 and 2008, and they can do the same again.
Operation Jump Start was so successful that Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano (then the governor of Arizona), New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, and California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger called on congressional leaders to extend and fund Operation Jump Start “at numbers necessary to maintain improvements in operational control of the border.”
But President Obama is resisting calls to deploy the National Guard. “We very much do not want to militarize our border,” he said recently, voicing the same concern the Mexican government expressed when we deployed the National Guard in 2006. But in reality, Operation Jump Start did no such thing.
When the term “militarization of the border” is used, most people immediately think of the North Korea–South Korea border, where troops are permanently positioned and prepared for an invasion. We are obviously not worried about the Mexican government invading the United States; the soldiers deployed during Operation Jump Start did not perform law enforcement, were under strict rules for the use of force, and went under Title 32 status (i.e., the federal government funded the operation, but soldiers remained under the command of the border-state governors).
Another argument against Operation Jump Start is that it takes potential soldiers away from the Global War on Terror (or whatever the Obama administration is now calling the brave work of our fighting men and women). Some made the same point in 2006.
At that time, before a House committee, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense Paul McHale testified that “this limited, temporary deployment will not adversely affect operational readiness or [the] Department of Defense’s ability to conduct the Global War on Terrorism, nor hinder the National Guard’s ability or capacity to aid their states in the event of a natural disaster or other emergency.” Whether a deployment will affect operational readiness now is a question our commanding generals will have to answer, but sound U.S. policy ranks border security at the top of the priority list for National Guard missions.
We shouldn’t wait for Mexican drug violence to pour over the border in larger volumes, and we can’t afford to wait for delay-plagued virtual-fence technology to be installed. Now is the time for action.
Let’s spend less money on government giveaways and more money on border security. The next time entrenched Washington politicians want to earmark $2 million for the promotion of astronomy in Hawaii or $1.9 million for the Pleasure Beach Water Taxi Service Project in Connecticut, they should remember that only 625 of the 2,000 miles along the southwest border are under “effective control,” and that more money is needed to expedite the installation of border-security technology.
And as we wait for the infrastructure to be completed and the technology to be deployed, let’s relaunch Operation Jump Start. In doing so, President Obama will demonstrate that his commitment to securing our borders wasn’t just campaign rhetoric.
— Buzz Jacobs is the president of Polisec, LLC, a Tallahassee-based strategic-consulting firm. He served as the director of immigration security policy at the White House under Pres. George W. Bush and helped coordinate Operation Jump Start.