National Guardsmen clear brush near the Colorado River outside Yuma, Ariz. (Caitlin O'Hara/For The Washington Post)

Staff Sgt. Chris Cazares is panting to catch his breath after slicing down a salt cedar on the banks of the Colorado River with one of those orange-handled saws commonly used in school shop class.

A supervisor at a nursing home, the longtime soldier in the Army National Guard was previously deployed twice to Iraq, where he specialized in neutralizing chemical attacks. Now he is deployed to his hometown on Arizona’s border with Mexico. Here, he is neutralizing trees. 

Cazares is one of roughly 600 guardsmen serving on the border in Arizona since President Trump dispatched the National Guard last April in support of Customs and Border Protection. Numbering about 2,200 as of early this month, the guardsmen Trump supplied from across the nation answer to the governor of the state in which they are deployed. The active-duty troops the president sent to the border last fall now number about 4,350; they report to U.S. Northern Command.

Whether Cazares and his fellow guardsmen are needed here on the border has become the subject of a renewed debate that has cleaved along party lines. It has again put the U.S. border with Mexico at the center of national political rancor that is poised to escalate after Trump declared a national emergency Friday, bucking Congress to secure more funding for a wall.

In recent days, the newly inaugurated governors of California and New Mexico, both Democrats, ordered the withdrawal of most guardsmen from the border in their states, suggesting that Trump had deployed the Guard not because CBP is facing a crisis but rather because the president wants to sow fear and appear tough on illegal immigration by showing off uniformed officers in the field.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom called the deployment a “theater of the absurd” upon withdrawing the bulk of the forces from the border in his state and redeploying them to fight fires and target drugs. New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who retained a handful of guardsmen on the border, said her state would no longer abide “the president’s charade of border fearmongering by misusing our diligent National Guard troops.” 

The Republican governors of Arizona and Texas, meanwhile, have kept the full National Guard border deployments in their states. Supporters of the deployment say the back-end assistance from the Guard frees up Border Patrol agents to deal with threats from drug smugglers and human traffickers. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, they point out, both deployed the National Guard to the border during their presidencies. 

The American military cannot conduct domestic law enforcement activities, owing to an 1878 federal law called the Posse Comitatus Act. As a result, the uniformed personnel are helping in the background rather than dealing directly with migrants crossing the border. 

In Yuma, about 100 guardsmen are performing ancillary tasks for CBP — clearing brush, fixing machinery, stocking foodstuffs and monitoring surveillance cameras at the sector headquarters. The idea is to free up border agents previously assigned to those duties so that they can instead apprehend and process migrants.

“It’s kind of a godsend,” said Vincent J. Dulesky, special operations supervisor for public affairs at the Border Patrol’s Yuma sector. “As we were getting strained out, you have the National Guard.”

The 126 mile stretch of Arizona and California border that comprises the Yuma sector is a mélange of worlds — tribal areas, military installations, government parks, majestic sand dunes and vast stretches of agricultural land, much of it harvested by Mexican seasonal laborers who traverse the border with work permits. Sometimes described as the sunniest place in the United States, Yuma grows much of America’s lettuce. In a local souvenir shop, one Yuma T-shirt reads: “If you’ve had a salad in the winter, you’re welcome.”

Overall, the number of people apprehended for crossing the border illegally has decreased dramatically from a multi-decade high nearly two decades ago. In the Yuma sector there were 26,244 apprehensions of migrants crossing illegally in the 2018 fiscal year, down from 108,747 in 2000. Across the entire border with Mexico, apprehensions decreased to 396,579 from 1.6 million over the same time period. 

Although the number of apprehensions in Yuma are down from 20 years ago, they have more than quadrupled since 2014 amid an influx of families and children, primarily from Honduras and Guatemala, fleeing poverty and violence. The number of border agents assigned to the sector, meanwhile, is roughly the same now as it was in 2014. 


The fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border near San Luis, Ariz. (Caitlin O'Hara/For The Washington Post)

More than three-quarters of the people apprehended in Yuma last year crossed as unaccompanied minors or members of families including children. They tend to surrender to Border Patrol immediately after crossing into U.S. territory in what the agents call “give ups” — and many file asylum claims. Border Patrol is supposed to hold them for a maximum of 72 hours. After that, Immigration and Customs Enforcement can keep minors in immigration detention for no longer than 20 days. If a family hasn’t received a hearing by then, authorities must transfer the children to a licensed child-care facility or release them with a parent, who often receives a tracking bracelet and a court date.

The Trump administration says these standards create a loophole that is incentivizing migrants to cross the border with children and remain in the United States illegally after their release.

The administration initially tried to stem the influx of Central American families by separating children from parents who entered unlawfully, prompting a national outcry. Now the administration has moved to terminate the 20-day rule and expand ICE’s family detention facilities. 

In Yuma, Border Patrol agents say the changing character of the migration has strained their force. Whereas years ago they tracked mostly Mexican border crossers looking to evade detection, now they say children and families from Central America are showing up in large groups, many requiring medical care after a perilous journey through the Sonoran Desert.

Last month, a group of 376 migrants from Central America crossed into the sector by burrowing under one of the walls erected there during the Bush administration. Nearly half of them were children.

“Every day that we get over 100 in a group is a strain,” Border Patrol agent Justin Kallinger said.

When the sector was apprehending adult Mexican border crossers, agents would detain them for an average of about eight hours and often send them back across the border, Kallinger said. Now, he said, the average time in sector custody is about the 72-hour maximum, because Central American migrants require a flight to get home and often are making asylum claims. Agents must provide transport, hospital escorts and food in the interim, duties now claiming far more of their time.

For relief, they are relying on the National Guard.


National Guardsmen hold a morning meeting at the Customs and Border Protection Yuma sector headquarters. (Caitlin O'Hara/For The Washington Post)

“Guard. Boom. Here we are,” says Tech. Sgt. Dan Broughton, a 36-year-old member of the West Virginia Air National Guard, who after four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan is monitoring cameras and sensors in the sector’s surveillance room. 

Now staffed by about half guardsmen and half civilian employees, the room no longer has border agents behind the monitors because they were moved to front-line law enforcement roles.

In a supply room across the parking lot, guardsmen surrounded by diapers, bottles, baby formula, emergency blankets, cheese crackers and Cup Noodles have come up with a trolley-cart system to save border agents time while distributing goods to detained migrants. 

Closer to the border, Cazares is overseeing about 17 guardsmen on the “vegetation team,” which is clearing brush along a part of the Colorado River that forms the border with Mexico for seven miles. 

The goal, he says, is to give migrants coming across the river fewer places to hide and ensure that CBP cameras affixed to nearby towers can scan the area without obstruction. Though most of the sector’s crossers are looking to surrender, the agents say some still seek to evade detection. 

Before the guardsmen arrived, about six border agents who have now been moved to primary law enforcement duties took responsibility for taming the brush, Dulesky said. 

Whether the Guard is the most cost-effective way to relieve Border Patrol sectors is a question of how to apportion resources and define needs. The deployment is projected to cost the Defense Department about $550 million by the end of September, raising questions about whether the same funds could have gone directly to CBP for additional agents, technology and resources, offering a more permanent fix.

Guard missions tend to cost the Pentagon more than active-duty ones, because guardsmen receive additional pay and benefits when deployed. Most of the guardsmen deployed to Yuma are staying in local hotels; active-duty forces operating in the United States tend to stay on bases.

On Friday, Trump said a bill Congress passed to fund border security this week provided “so much money, we don’t know what to do with it,” just not enough for the wall. The additional funding raised questions about using relatively expensive uniformed personnel to carry out duties such as clearing trees.

On the river outside Yuma, those are faraway Washington concerns.

On the American side, Mexican seasonal workers are harvesting broccoli for American diners. On the Mexican side, the clouds are hovering over Los Algodones, a town nicknamed “Molar City” for its bargain Mexican dentists who fix American teeth.

Cazares is busy getting “down and dirty” with his team, which has cleared more than 165,000 square feet of brush since mid November. He is upbeat, unfazed by a job that can involve laboring under the brutal desert sun.

“Everything has to be cleared out,” the 42-year-old says with a sweep of the hand across the horizon.

The alarm on a mobile phone blares, interrupting Cazares as he extols Yuma’s bean-and-cheese burritos. The chorus of machetes and axes tires into silence, and guardsmen catch their breath. Cazares spins around, “Break!”


The fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border casts a shadow in the sand near San Luis, Ariz. (Caitlin O'Hara/For The Washington Post)