The Maryland National Guard is in Laredo supporting the U.S.… (Danny Zaragoza, Baltimore…)
LAREDO, Texas — — The three soldiers in the Maryland National Guard helicopter crew lifted off from this sweltering border city shortly after sunset, with a federal agent on board and three "tickets" — reports of persons attempting to slip across the Rio Grande from Mexico into the United States.
They spent an hour sweeping the river with infrared and night vision, but saw only Border Patrol agents, in their white SUVs or on foot, along the northern bank of the shallow river that separates the two countries. The Maryland crew chief, watching a glowing computer monitor inside the UH-72a Lakota helicopter, toggled through screen after screen in search of migrants.
Finally, a hit: the ghostly images of three adults wading north across the river. Then, a group of 11 or 12 fording a different stretch of the slow-moving waterway. And three more, sitting on the American side of the river, their feet still in the water — ready, if challenged, to cross back to Mexico.
"I was amazed at how many people cross the border each and every night," said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Scott Sauer, a Maryland Guard pilot who has served two deployments here. "And how unsecure our borders truly are."
That volume of traffic has brought the Marylanders to the busiest stretch of the Southwest border to bolster federal enforcement efforts.
Elsewhere on the 2,000-mile frontier, government statistics suggest a decade-long decline in attempted crossings. But in the Border Patrol sectors of Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas, the number of apprehensions has exploded, from 95,000 in fiscal year 2011 to 205,000 last year.
Border Patrol agents here say increasingly aggressive criminal organizations — in many cases, the same ones that smuggle drugs — are responsible for the ever-growing number of immigrants in the country without legal documents. Last year, South Texas surpassed Arizona as the principal crossing for unauthorized entrants.
"We're getting slammed," said Agent Chris Cabrera, a leader of the Border Patrol union in the Rio Grande Valley. "We're getting overrun down here."
Maryland is one of several states that have answered a call for help. Since January, crews from the Edgewood-based 1-224th Aviation Security and Support Battalion have flown night surveillance missions to spot unauthorized crossers and to guide agents through the thorny scrub to their hiding places. It's the battalion's second deployment to the area in the last two years.
Border Patrol officials say it's making a difference. They credit Guard crews with spotting more than 6,500 people during the first three months of the year, helping to apprehend nearly 5,300 and turning another 850 back across the border.
"Now we have eyes in the sky," said Peter Ayala, a Border Patrol supervisor in Laredo. "They can run, but we still can see where they're going. So we don't have to be endangering ourselves or the public when we're out there. … You can see in a couple of years the tremendous effect that they've had."
Cabrera concurred: "Those guys are friggin' awesome."
Maj. Gen. James Adkins, the commander of the Maryland National Guard, says the state's air crews are keeping their skills sharp as they help enforce the border, protect property and save lives.
"It's kind of a natural mission for us," he said. "Whether in blizzards or in hurricanes, our focus has always been to support somebody else so they can do their job. If we can help the Border Patrol do their job, that's all good for the nation."
The effort has drawn some criticism. Gustavo Andrade, organizing director of CASA de Maryland, said he was surprised that Gov. Martin O'Malley approved Maryland's participation.
"That policy seems inconsistent with Maryland's values of upholding immigrants' rights," Andrade said.
He pointed to state legislation in recent years that has allowed immigrants without legal documentation to attend public colleges and universities in Maryland at in-state tuition rates and to get driver's licenses. He also noted O'Malley's announcement this month that the state would no longer automatically honor requests from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold arrested immigrants in the Baltimore jail beyond the point when they ordinarily would be released.
"We would hope that Maryland's mission on the border is purely humanitarian," Andrade said.
O'Malley, who as governor is commander-in-chief of the Maryland National Guard, said in a statement that Guard members may be activated to serve in a variety of missions, from responding to natural disasters at home to supporting peacekeeping efforts overseas. "Members of the Maryland National Guard who are serving on the United States-Mexico border are supporting federal missions," he said.