July 12, 2008

Operation Jumpstart ends on quiet note

Jeremy Roebuck
EDINBURG -- The Texas National Guard is set to end a two-year border security mission this week.

And while the guardsmen's arrival in South Texas was met with concern from civil liberties groups, the soldiers have departed with relatively little fanfare.

Most of the more than 500 guardsmen once stationed in the Rio Grande Valley have already been released from border duty even though their mission isn't set to expire until Tuesday, said Dan Doty, a local spokesman for the U.S. Border Patrol.

"I still see one or two of them around occasionally," he said. "But most of them have already left."

President Bush ordered the deployment of 6,000 Guard members from across the nation's southern border in 2006 in hopes of temporarily filling personnel gaps in the Border Patrol's ranks.

Dubbed "Operation Jumpstart," the president's plan positioned 3,000 troops in South Texas, where they worked in support roles such as monitoring information centers and repairing vehicles.

The effort freed up hundreds of Border Patrol agents for fieldwork, while the agency set to hiring 6,000 new personnel of its own.

But critics decried the plan, fearing guardsmen would be put to work enforcing federal law and militarizing the border. Their domestic efforts are legally limited to emergency and disaster assistance.

"We continue to be very concerned about blurring the line between civil and criminal border policing," said Rebecca Bernhardt, a policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, in February 2007

But Col. William Meehan, a spokesman for the Texas Military Forces - the umbrella organization for the Texas Army National Guard, Texas Air National Guard and Texas State Guard - said soldiers remained conscious of those concerns throughout Jumpstart's duration.

"From the beginning we never arrived as a law enforcement force," he said. "We were very careful to remain in support roles."

Still, some Texas Guardsmen landed in trouble, including three stationed in Laredo who were arrested for allegedly running an immigrant smuggling operation.

But many more found permanent jobs through their temporary assignments, Meehan said. About 30 members of the Texas Guard have joined the Border Patrol full-time since the beginning of Jumpstart.

The plan went so smoothly that governors in four border states have asked the Bush administration to extend the Guard's deployment.

Earlier this year, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a staunch supporter of Jumpstart from the beginning, lobbied for an extension in light of rising border violence in areas such as Nuevo Laredo and Ciudad Juarez, across the border from Laredo and El Paso, respectively.

While Perry still has the power to station the state's Guard troops wherever he deems necessary, the federal government picked up the tab under Operation Jumpstart.

"The governor has certainly been in favor of an extension and is disappointed that it doesn't look like it will be happening," spokeswoman Allison Castle said.

The governors of Arizona, California and New Mexico also asked Congress for an extension, even though the California and New Mexico governors had earlier panned the plan.

In the Valley, the Border Patrol has hired enough new agents to replace nearly all of the guardsmen once stationed here, said Doty, the agency's local spokesman.

"We're sitting in a pretty good place with our hiring," he said. "There won't be any loss of service with (Jumpstart's) end."

The Bush administration has given no indication it plans to extend Jumpstart's mission. But should that order come, the Texas Guard will be ready, Meehan said.

"It was a great opportunity for us to serve the citizens of Texas," he said. ‘We look forward to doing it again if necessary."

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