4 Investigates: Does the southern border need the National Guard’s help?

[anvplayer video=”5060925″ station=”998127″]

NEW MEXICO – There are renewed calls by high-level Republicans in New Mexico for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to deploy the National Guard to assist federal authorities at the state’s southern border with Mexico.

“We just don’t have enough men and women there and the ones that are there are so stressed,” Rep. Yvette Herrell, R-New Mexico, told KOB 4 in an interview. “They don’t have enough people.”

“(Border Patrol agents) have expressed they are so busy processing immigrants who have come across the border illegally, they do not have the time to patrol and protect the border,” said Rebecca Dow, a state legislator from Sierra County and a Republican candidate for governor.

In late September, the State Republican Party issued a release stating, “The party exhorts Gov. Lujan Grisham to take action to stop the crisis at the southern border."

“I’ve asked the governor to deploy the National Guard three different times,” Rep. Herrell said.

A typical day with the U.S. Border Patrol

In order to take the politics and politicians out of the question of whether guard troops are needed or not, 4 Investigates spent two days along the New Mexico/Mexico border and spent a morning with U.S. Border Patrol agents.

KOB 4 met the agents at 6 a.m. in Sunland Park, New Mexico, just before sunrise. Within minutes, they were called to help track down people who had crossed near Mount Cristo Rey illegally. A sensor in the mountain triggered an alarm and within minutes half a dozen agents were wading through thick brush and uneven terrain in the dark. U.S. Border Patrol Agent Fidel Baca scanned the dirt looking for fresh footprints often.

“Most of the prints are worn, but see how this one is nice and crisp?” Agent Baca said as he carefully looked at each print.

After a 15 minute search, the agents discovered three young men; one from Honduras, two from Mexico. The migrants told us they had been traveling for four months hoping to get into the Nation’s interior to work, but odds are, they’ll be deported back to their home countries.

Within minutes, there was a new search—this one near the Ardovino’s Desert Crossing restaurant. The sun was by then, which allowed for more agents to join in the search by horseback, helicopter and boots on the ground. Moments later, agents received intel that a man and woman suspected of crossing illegally may have changed their clothes and left the desert and moved on to a road, attempting to blend in with locals. As we drove, agents spotted two people who met the description. When asked for their documents, they couldn’t produce any. A woman, who appeared to be in her early 20’s told us this was her ninth or tenth apprehension by U.S. federal authorities.

What’s changed?

There are more migrants trying to cross over illegally under the cover of darkness or through the desert now compared to previous years. While 2019 was a record year for migrants attempting to enter the United States, the situation then was vastly different. In 2019, most migrants were not trying to sneak over. They presented themselves at U.S. Ports of Entry to ask for asylum, which is a lawful way to try to enter the country. But during the COVID-19 Pandemic, the Trump Administration invoked Title 42, a policy that suspends asylum laws and allows the U.S. to keep asylum seekers out of our country in the name of public health. The Biden Administration has kept that policy, which many people believe has led to the uptick in illegal desert crossings this year. And agents believe human smugglers have capitalized on that.

“Transcontinental criminal organizations are constantly putting migrants’ lives at risk,” said U.S. Border Patrol Agent Joel Freeland. “They are the ones who are making false promises and lying to these people saying it’s safe to come, when it’s really not. This terrain is treacherous.”

Data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection show we’re embarking on a record year. In the El Paso Sector alone, which covers all of the New Mexico/Mexico border, stats show a dramatic increase in the number of migrant encounters.

El Paso Sector migrant encounters by year:

  • 2018: 31,561
  • 2019: 182,143
  • 2020: 46,496
  • 2021: 176,102+

(Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection)

Border Patrol agents are the first to admit, they can’t catch all of the migrants. We asked how they could be more successful.

"Any help we can get is greatly appreciated,” Agent Fidel Baca said. “More boots on the ground, more technology. We can line this entire border with cameras, but I’ve never seen a camera climb down the pole and make an apprehension.”

In the past, the New Mexico National Guard has assisted the U.S. Border Patrol. We asked what that looked like.

“Instead of putting an agent behind the camera, we put one of them,” Agent Baca said. “Of course, an agent is going to know the trends and the area a lot better, but usually (a Guard Service member) can man the technology and describe to us where a crosser is heading and an agent can figure it out and go make the apprehension.”

What will Gov. Lujan Grisham do?

We asked Gov. Lujan Grisham’s office if the governor had any plans to send New Mexico National Guard Service members to the border and her spokesperson sent the following statement.

“As you may know, the National Guard does not have jurisdiction to enforce federal immigration policy. Despite the frequent partisan calls for guard service members to "deploy" to the border, the guard is very limited in the kind of assistance they can provide federal agents on the border, which underscores that those calls are more anti-immigration rhetoric than they are substantive policy proposals. Moreover, the federal government has not made a request of the state to provide even that limited kind of assistance, which suggests there is not, at least in this state right now, a need for our aid. If that were to change, and if there were a meaningful role for state service members to play in a substantive effort, the state would of course grant it respectful consideration.”