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On Mexican Border, U.S. Military Low-Key

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

NPR's Ted Robbins is NPR's southwest correspondent, based in Tucson, Arizona, and he spent a lot of time covering the border in recent years. Ted, when people describe this move as a militarization of the border, how much of a law enforcement presence do you see along the border right now?

TED ROBBINS reporting:

Well Melissa, you could easily argue that the border area is already militarized. You've got 10,000 Border Patrol agents roughly, both on Mexico and the Canadian borders. And in the Tucson sector alone you've got 2,500 agents and that stretches west. You've got another 700 just in the Yuma area and that's doubled in the last year.

But let me set a scene. What you have is, in urban areas, you have 15-foot fencing that goes out a couple of miles in each direction, and then out farther you've got ground sensors, you've got Kiowa, Blackhawk, Apache helicopters going overhead, unmanned aerial drones, cameras on polls 30-feet high and agents stationed in towers and agents patrolling in SUVs, all-terrain vehicles. Then as you drive in, and that's just along the border area, as you drive in, 10 to 15 miles in on almost every highway there are Border Patrol checkpoints where every vehicle is stopped. So that's the scene right now.

BLOCK: Would there be parts of the border where you would see none of that?

ROBBINS: In the extreme rugged mountains and desert areas, there's less of a presence. There's more of the unmanned drones and the ground sensors in those areas. But it's true that the resources are stretched a bit thin, the thought being that people won't cross in those areas because they're too hostile. Of course, that's been proven wrong. Almost 4,000 people have died in the last decade or so trying to cross.

BLOCK: There are a few hundred National Guard personnel along the border right now. What do they do?

ROBBINS: Well, Melissa, what they started doing a couple of years ago was helping with Customs at the ports of entry examine, inspect cargo trucks after 9/11 for contraband. And then in more recent times they've begun helping to operate remote cameras from communication centers and radio operations. That kind of support.

New National Guardspeople could help drive buses. There are dozens of busses at any given time driving illegal immigrants who have been caught and processed back to the Mexican border, if they're Mexican, and dropped off at the border.

BLOCK: If you look at training, what kind of training do these Border Patrol agents get and how would that compare with what the National Guard troops might have?

ROBBINS: Well, the Border Patrol has been aggressively recruiting for a number of years, including offering signing bonuses. They're proud of their training. They go through a 20-week academy that focuses not just on normal law enforcement, but on immigration law, Spanish language instruction, search and rescue, that sort of thing. And it's not an easy academy, by all accounts. Every Border Patrol officer I've talked with says that it's a grueling academy. When they come out, they feel trained. That's the other reason why it's been so difficult to get more troops, Border Patrol agents I should say, on the ground, is that it takes a long time to train them.

BLOCK: When you talk to Border Patrol agents, is this something that comes up? Do they say, boy, I wish we could get the National Guard down here to help us out?

ROBBINGS: You know publicly the line is, of course, we'll support whatever the president chooses, and privately they wouldn't mind the help at all. Some parts, frankly, of being a Border Patrol officer are rather boring. I mean sitting on the, sitting in an SUV just planted out there in the middle of nowhere making sure people don't come across isn't terribly fun and I think, you know, I think they would welcome any help they could get as long as it was in a support role.

BLOCK: NPR's Ted Robbins in Tucson. Thanks very much.

ROBBINS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As supervising editor for Arts and Culture at NPR based at NPR West in Culver City, Ted Robbins plans coverage across NPR shows and online, focusing on TV at a time when there's never been so much content. He thinks "arts and culture" encompasses a lot of human creativity — from traditional museum offerings to popular culture, and out-of-the-way people and events.
As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.
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