One phrase sums up both the chief achievement and complaint of National Guard soldiers and airmen posted along this dusty strip of border with Mexico: "Nothing happening."
That's good news for Operation Jumpstart, President Bush's eight-month-old initiative to reinforce America's southern border with National Guard troops until enough border patrol agents are trained. The extra troops appear to be discouraging people from trying to cross illegally.
Apprehensions of illegal immigrants in the Yuma sector – one of the busiest for the past two years and a top target for the operation – have dropped 62 percent in the last four months compared with the same period a year ago. That's the biggest drop of all nine border patrol sectors on the frontier with Mexico and double the average decline. The amount of marijuana seized in the Yuma sector fell 36 percent for the same period.
The figures for the entire southern border – a 27 decline in apprehensions and a 51 percent increase in marijuana seized – are encouraging, experts say.
"If those numbers hold [for the entire fiscal year], that would indeed represent a significant drop," says Luis Cabrera, an expert on transnational justice issues at Arizona State University in Tempe. "We're pretty sure there's a deterrence effect."
President Bush visited this busy crossing point last May to introduce his program to supplement US border patrol agents with National Guard soldiers and airmen for two years (6,000 the first year, 3,000 the next).
Of those, 2,400 are posted in Arizona, which has the two top-priority sectors in the operation – Tucson and Yuma.
"We have had 49 states participate in the border mission in Arizona, with 7,758 [troops] coming through Arizona," says Maj. Paul Aguirre, spokesman for Operation Jumpstart in Arizona. "Roughly 40 percent of the effort is in Arizona."
Moreover, some 500 additional border patrol agents have bolstered the efforts in the Yuma sector this past year, as have added infrastructure – National Guard helicopters, miles of triple fences, lights, cameras, and sensors.
Still, it's the highly visible National Guard troops that most here say are having the biggest deterrent effect. With their limited support roles (they can't apprehend nor arrest individuals), they are freeing border patrol agents from routine duties, such as fence-building and repair, so they can spend more time nabbing illegal infiltrators.
A few miles from town along the dusty levee between the Colorado River and the Salinity Canal, two National Guard soldiers man a station. (The media can no longer identify the soldiers because border patrol intelligence officers have learned that smugglers have placed a $30,000 to $50,000 bounty on their heads.) The two Guardsmen from North Carolina are dressed in camouflage fatigues. They carry M-16 rifles and high-powered binoculars that enable them to see clearly across to Mexico – often to see smugglers looking back at them through their binoculars.
They stand in front of a Chevy Blazer painted in camouflage next to their tent. Their shifts vary, but they are mainly deployed in groups of four for 48 to 72 hours. Two stand watch for four- or six-hour shifts while the other two sleep in the tent.
The North Carolina men, who were previously deployed to Iraq, have been posted here for the entire time.
The days "start to run into each other after a while. We basically observe and let border patrol know what we see," says one.
In the entire four months they've stood here, watching and waiting, they've seen only two families – four or five people in each group – attempting to cross. One of the men says it is difficult to report these people. "I wonder what would make me do that – climb into that icy cold river holding my child above my head? You can be compassionate, but you have to do your job, report them."
In both cases where the Guardsmen observed people attempting to cross, they called the border patrol who arrived within 15 minutes and apprehended the illegal immigrants.
A little farther down the dirt road is another outpost, one of 20 to 60 such sites strategically located according to intelligence gleaned from smugglers at various spots along the Yuma sector's 125-mile border section.
The two Guardsmen manning this post, also previously deployed in Iraq, are from Washington State. These two men – dressed similarly and toting the same weapons – have been here since October.
"We haven't seen anybody in a long time – maybe since November," says the more talkative of the two. "But there's always stuff to do, like we make Crystal Light, sanitize our hands, make sun tea. Talk to the BP and get their input when they stop.
"They," he says, pointing to border patrol senior agent Chris Van Wagenen, "have to put up with driving and air conditioning. We don't."
Mr. Van Wagenen responds that it's because of these highly visible men that the Yuma sector is now apprehending about only 100 illegal immigrants per day, compared with 500 to 600 a year ago.
The Washington Guardsmen's boredom is briefly interrupted by Rosita's catering truck from San Luis, a nearby town. This is the fourth day of servicing the National Guardsmen, according to John Anguian, the driver. These men – and several others along the levy – are thrilled to eat tostadas and refried beans rather than their MREs (meals ready to eat).
Overall, the Guardsmen say they are content with their roles and even praise it as a mission providing good training for Iraq – "We're staying in a tent in the dust – it's a lot like over there."
His partner pipes in. "But we're here in the good old U.S. of A., and we haven't been shot at."
There have, however, been some close calls. border patrol agents say that one of the indicators that Operation Jumpstart is successful is that violent attacks on officers are up at the border (a 28 percent increase in the Yuma sector alone).
"We are definitely putting a dent in their pocketbooks," says Van Wagenen, "and they are going to try to intimidate you, resort to violence."
Most assaults are rock-throwing incidents, but there have been other, more-serious incidents. In early January, for example, four armed men from Mexico approached an Arizona observation post manned by a team of four National Guard soldiers, armed with M-16s.
The National Guard left the post as the Mexican gunmen closed in, as their rules of engagement require. The gunmen disappeared back into Mexico before border patrol agents arrived.
The incident has been controversial in that many politicians in Arizona, especially, are calling for the National Guard to become more proactive.
Still, many believe the initiative is beneficial, but wonder how long the operation can be maintained and what will happen if and when the National Guard leaves.
"Once the resources are brought in, you have to not only make the change, but those resources have to stay there to maintain the change," says Doris Meissner, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., and former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. "You can't simply do an interruption and go back to the status quo ante and expect that it is going to hold."
Professor Cabrera agrees: "To truly gain operational control of the border – to stop unauthorized immigration in the way people speak about – will resemble a major military operation in cost and size of undertaking."