In Ariz., Maryland National Guardsmen keep watch in the immigration fight -- even on sovereign land

Guarding the country from the border line

September 17, 2006|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,Sun reporter

Sells, Ariz. — Sells, Ariz.-- --Even from this height, almost 100 feet above the cactus-covered desert floor and armed with high-powered binoculars, Spc. Donald Neuer struggles to identify the small black dots scurrying down the Baboquivari Mountains near the Mexican border.

Cattle? Horses? People?

The 21-year-old Maryland National Guard soldier immediately radios in a report to the U.S. Border Patrol. His confidence grows quickly: There are more than 30, he concludes, and they're human. He quickly tags them as UDAs -- undocumented aliens.

And they are still running, heading toward the thick mesquite brush along a bone-dry streambed known as a desert wash. He's about to lose them in the twilight.

"We're going after the guy with the tan shirt. He gave us, uh, the gesture," Neuer says.

In a few minutes, before day folds into night, Border Patrol agents swing into action.

Guided by Neuer and his fellow soldiers, they storm the darkened site about a mile away with an armada of ATVs and motorcycles and their noisy helicopter hovering over it all.

Neuer and 120 fellow volunteers from the Maryland National Guard have been dispatched to the Sonoran Desert as part of a stopgap interdiction measure announced in May by President Bush.

Critics have questioned whether sending up to 6,500 part-time soldiers to watch the southern border is wise for a National Guard still saddled with commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan. They asked whether the Guard should be engaged in a seemingly extracurricular homeland security mission when its leaders struggle to recruit more soldiers and retain the guardsmen in their ranks today.

Before Sept. 11, 2001, signing up for the National Guard largely meant spending weekends doing training exercises, protecting communities during natural disasters and answering a rare call to defend abroad. Now, those who join could be serving in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and standing on the Mexican border.

Watching the flow of people crossing the border every day, some of the Marylanders admit, has been eye-opening and disturbing, causing some to question the nation's immigration policies. Several guardsmen here are still waiting to become citizens and sympathize with those seeking to come to America.

Feel like strangers

Moreover, the Marylanders say they sometimes feel like strangers in a strange land, conducting operations in the country's second-largest Native American reservation.

But they also believe their efforts are paying off. Their presence, they said, also gives the Border Patrol extra time to train 6,000 new agents over the next two years.

"I think the biggest surprise was the level of activity of people crossing the border and what the Border Patrol agents have been up against for the last several years," said Capt. Brian Perez, commander of the Maryland unit here. "The number of people coming across daily is just incredible."

More than a million suspected illegal immigrants were caught last year along the southwest border alone. The Border Patrol does not estimate how many its agents failed to catch.

The guardsmen knew their assignment would take them to south-central Arizona for about 60 days, a tour that ends later this month. Once they arrived in early August, the guardsmen learned more about their unusual destination: All of their surveillance outposts are within the independent Tohono O'odham nation.

Bordered by Arizona to the north, east and west and to the south for 74 miles with Mexico, about 14,000 Native Americans, live on these traditional lands that match the size of Connecticut and straddle the U.S.-Mexican border.

Its sparsely populated and unforgiving topography -- with miles to go before reaching a town or city, much less a decent drink of water -- has turned the Tohono O'odham lands into one of the deadliest illegal border crossings. In parts, its plains stretch out unmercifully, littered with empty water bottles and discarded clothing. This year, 56 immigrants have died here.

"We found some of them hanging who committed suicide," said the tribe's assistant police chief, Joseph Delgado. "One time, we found they were close to death and they had buried themselves in the dirt because of the heat."

Sgt. Tobias Nez joined the Nation's police department 25 years ago when it had about 20 officers. Today, inundated by illegal immigrants, his department has 70 officers.

While most illegal immigrants only seek safe passage, he said, tribal members have also seen their homes broken into and occasionally have become victims of assaults and kidnappings. Last year, Tohono O'odham officials estimate its tribe spent $2.7 million in border-related expenditures, from death investigations to drug-smuggling cases.

Still, not every tribal member was pleased about the Guard's arrival. Their legislative body unanimously passed a law this summer to permit the Guard, but the legislation contains restrictions governing how and where the soldiers can operate.

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