Guarding the Texas-Mexico Border: ‘Trust Factor' Grows, But Mistakes Still Possible

National Guard troops are currently on duty in South Texas, working to help the understaffed U.S. Border Patrol.

But an NBC 5 investigation has found the success of that mission could depend on how well the two agencies work together.

Coordination between the National Guard and the Border Patrol has been a problem in the past, primarily because of the lack of coordination, according to records obtained by NBC 5 Investigates.

Over the past year, about 40 percent of undocumented immigrants caught crossing the United States' southern border were apprehended along a 300-mile stretch of the Rio Grande Valley. After President Trump dispatched the National Guard to the RGV, NBC 5 Investigates went along to observe the patrols.

After guard troops were last dispatched to help protect the border in 2014, records show there were times the guard would spot an illegal entry, but to no avail because border agents were too far away to make an arrest.

This time the Border Patrol is taking a different approach and promising better results in joining forces with National Guard troops, who do not have arrest powers.

“I see it as a very stop-gap measure, filling in critical functions that are needed to support the front-line operations,” said Manuel Padilla, patrol sector chief in the Rio Grande Valley.

NBC 5 News
The Rio Grand Valley Sector, as defined by US Customs and Border Protection. See a larger version of this image here.

Records of past National Guard deployments to the border show many cases where undocumented immigrants were spotted, but got away because Border Patrol agents weren’t nearby to arrest them.

Without better coordination this time, “chaos is the best way I can put it, because we have seen this before,” said David Aguilar, chief of the Border Patrol under President George W. Bush.

Aguilar told NBC 5 Investigates that patrol agents, as well as guard troops, are demoralized when undocumented immigrants are able to escape their net.

“Very frustrating. And the reason that was occurring was because of the lack of coordination,” he said.

Undocumented Immigrants Kept Hidden in Deplorable Stash Houses

This time, guard troops are taking on support roles, and for the most part staying out of the chase, freeing up border agents to stay on the front lines.

But behind the scenes, there can still be communication breakdowns as the guard and the Border Patrol share intelligence and other critical information.

“You can’t have a successful operation if there is a lack of communication,” said Col. David Church, an officer in the National Guard and author of a study on how well the guard and Border Patrol have worked together in the past.

“We had some Border Patrol (agents) who had the perception that the guard was actually coming to secure the border for the Border Patrol. And that was not the case,” Church said.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection shares a video of stash houses in McAllen, Texas, where smugglers keep undocumented immigrants as they move them into the United States.

He said there have been major improvements in the past decade. “Once that trust factor fell into place,” Aguilar said, “unity of effort came.”

But problems can still arise, especially in the Rio Grande Valley, where illegal crossings are at their highest, with more than 130,000 arrests last year alone.

The problems are caused by the continued shortage of Border Patrol agents, sector chief Padilla said.

“The partnerships are working so close together. Full operational integration. But that capacity that we collectively have is not adequate for this border,” he said.

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