The National Guard is supplying eyes in the sky for Border Patrol agents along the Texas-Mexico frontier.
Angela Kocherga / WFAA
LAREDO, Texas — Just before dusk, National Guard pilots pull a Lakota helicopter out of a hangar at the Laredo International Airport.
The pilots — both women with blond hair tied back — are preparing for a flight along the Rio Grande in support of the U.S. Border Patrol.
“We’re providing eyes in the sky,” said Lt. Col. Joanne MacGregor, a spokesperson with the Texas National Guard. “We’re giving those border protection agents the ability to go to places that otherwise they wouldn’t be able to go because they’ve got top cover. They’ve got somebody looking for their safety and well-being.”
The National Guard provides air support along the border from Laredo to the Rio Grande Valley under Operation River Watch II, a federal mission that relies on an all-volunteer force of National Guard members from various states.
“The volunteers are fantastic,” said Brig. Gen. Patrick Hamilton, Domestic Operations Commander. “The border is a priority area. Historically since 1917, the National Guard has patrolled the border. All the forts from Fort Brown to Fort Davis were where in Texas the National Guard provided military support.”
More recent Southwest border missions include Operation Jump Start from 2006-2008, when former President George W. Bush worked with governors of Texas, California and Arizona to assign 6,000 National Guard members to the frontier while the U.S. Border Patrol hired and trained thousands of new agents.
In 2010, President Obama funded Operation Phalanx, authorizing 1,200 soldiers and airmen along the Southwest border.
The Texas portion of that mission — called Operation River Watch — was extended in March 2012, and includes 500 hours of “aviation support and criminal analyst support,” according to the National Guard.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry called up 1,000 additional troops in July during the mass migration of Central American families and children. Texas National Guard forces are on the ground in the Rio Grande Valley helping Department of Public Safety troopers target cross-border crime.
These are additional troops paid for by Texas taxpayers, since it was the governor and not the president who authorized the deployment and $1.3 million a week for Operation Strong Safety.
National Guard members serve in a support role for state and federal agencies; they do not detain people or seize drugs coming across the border illegally. That is the responsibility of Border Patrol agents.
Gov. Perry could have granted the National Guardsmen arrest powers, but so far has not.
The mission for both state and federal National Guard missions: Disrupt criminal smuggling organizations.
“That partnership has allowed just an added layer of safety and security for our agents and the general public,” said Dan Ramos, Assistant Chief Patrol Agent in the Laredo Sector for the U.S. Border Patrol.
National Guard helicopters respond to about a dozen calls a night from the Border Patrol.
A Border Patrol agent on every flight coordinates efforts between the air crew and ground, and guides agents through thick brush — often in remote areas at night with limited visibility.
The helicopters have both day and night vision cameras and high-powered searchlights that have helped agents find people and drugs coming across the border illegally.
“You got the eye in the sky and we got you,” Assistant Chief Ramos said. “It’s just a matter of time.” said Assistant Chief Ramos.