Border Patrol commissioner says troops are helping at the border


SAN DIEGO ---- With National Guard troops operating heavy earth-moving equipment in the background, W. Ralph Basham, the newly appointed commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, said Thursday the military has helped reduce the number of illegal immigrants trying to cross the border.

"We've already seen they've made a significant difference, in terms of deterrence and bringing down the number of attempts of illegal aliens trying to cross the border," Basham said.

Supervisor Border Patrol Agent Richard Kite said the 1,200 National Guard troops assigned to support roles along the border in California have allowed the agency to reassign more agents to the front lines. He said arrests of illegal immigrants attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border were down more than 40 percent earlier this year compared with the same time last year.

But arrest numbers fluctuate year to year, season to season and sector to sector, he said.

The agency reported last month that arrests, which are used to gauge illegal immigrant traffic through the border, had fallen about 3 percent borderwide. But the figure was up sharply in some areas, including San Diego County.

Arrests in California declined sharply after a crackdown, known as Operation Gatekeeper, was introduced in San Diego County 12 years ago, but the number may be creeping up again, according to new figures.

From October to July, arrests climbed 19 percent, compared with the same time the previous year, to 175,324 along California's border with Mexico.

Officials say Operation Jump Start ---- as the program that increased the military's presence at the border is known ---- is helping. From June 15 to Aug. 31, the Border Patrol says the troops helped arrest 7,846 illegal immigrants, confiscate 33,649 pounds of marijuana and impound 151 vehicles.

In May, President Bush announced a plan to strengthen border security by calling on troops to bolster the Border Patrol temporarily. Kite said the troops have taken on administrative and repair duties, allowing its agents to focus on the border.

Kite said he could not give a specific number of agents reassigned to the border because of the troops, nor could he release the number of National Guard troops added to the San Diego area since Operation Jump Start began in June.

Critics of the program say they question the benefits of the military presence on the border because there is little specific information about the troops' duties or effectiveness.

"I think it's unclear what sort of impact the National Guard has had, because they are not disclosing the kinds of jobs they are doing," said Pedro Rios, a human rights activist with the American Friends Service Committee in San Diego.

On Thursday, a group of National Guard soldiers graded a field within sight of the border while Barsham answered questions from reporters. Barsham, who was appointed to the job in late May, said he was touring the area to get a better sense of what the Border Patrol needs for its mission.

"I felt strongly that I had to come down here and get a firsthand look in order to have a better and greater appreciation for what needs to be done," he said, "so that I can then go back and work with the Congress in order to get the funding and the resources that are going to be needed to get this accomplished."

California National Guard troops were deployed to the border by former Gov. Pete Wilson in 1994, when illegal immigration became a central issue. Gov. Gray Davis removed them six years later, saying the money spent in the deployment could be better spent elsewhere.

Bush called for a two-year deployment of 6,000 National Guard troops along the border while the agency hires and trains 6,000 additional Border Patrol agents.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact staff writer Edward Sifuentes at (760) 740-3511 or