A month after President Trump called for sending National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border, the head of the national Border Patrol union called the deployment "a colossal waste of resources."
"We have seen no benefit," said Brandon Judd, president of the union that represents 15,000 agents, the National Border Patrol Council.
The criticism is a dramatic departure for the group, which endorsed Trump's candidacy for president and has praised his border security efforts, including National Guard deployments.
"When I found out the National Guard was going to be on the border I was extremely excited," Judd said, because previous deployments on the border helped alleviate the Border Patrol's workload.
But this time, he said, "that has not happened at all."
About 1,600 National Guard troops were deployed on the border. About 750 more troops may soon be added in support roles, and the total could reach 4,000 "based on requests for assistance and what they need," said Army Lt. Col. Jamie Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.
"We want to match the right number of troops to do the jobs that are needed, not just provide a certain number of troops," Davis said.
Davis declined to comment on the remarks by the Border Patrol union.
A Border Patrol spokeswoman said National Guard troops had assisted with 3,924 deportations, 1,116 "turn backs" of migrants into Mexico and the seizure of 3,486 pounds of marijuana — all by operating support technology and equipment. She said they had replaced some Border Patrol agents at observation posts. "Instead of an agent watching a camera, they can," she said.
Border Patrol and National Guard officials from Arizona and Texas held a briefing several weeks into the deployment to praise it as a "force multiplier," although they did not say how many agents the deployment had freed to patrol the border. They noted that troops stationed at observation posts on the border in Texas were part of a separate operation, that those sent by the National Guard were not allowed to observe anything inside Mexico, even remotely via surveilance equipment, because that's considered spying.
Border Patrol Acting Chief Carla Provost responded to the union's claims by acknowledging that the National Guard's role has changed compared with past deployments. Although they have been deployed to the border, they have to be paired with an agent who has law enforcement powers, and Border Patrol and defense officials decided it was better to use them behind the scenes for surveillance and air support.
"I want my agents out on the front line enforcing the laws," Provost said Thursday during a visit to the agency's Rio Grande Valley headquarters.
She said pairs of agents use aerostat blimps to monitor the border remotely, and when troops have replaced one agent, it frees another to patrol. "As they learn and get certain experience down, more agents will be able to go to the line," Provost said.
Katie Waldman, a Homeland Security spokewoman based in Washington, added: "While the National Guard deployment has not yet reached full capacity, it has clearly and unquestionably been a success with thousands of additional apprehensions and millions of dollars of drugs kept out of our country. The third request for assistance to deploy additional Guardsmen in support of the mission to secure the southern border was recently authorized and is being implemented. More help is on the way."
A Pentagon official, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the topic, noted that governors in the four border states where National Guard troops were deployed — Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas — set the terms of engagement.
"The overall support is to the mission, but they're going to be parceled out differently by state," he said, but "it hasn't been a significant change under George Bush, Obama and now Trump. They're different in how they're perceived. They're no different in what they're doing."
He added: "The National Guard is always cost-effective."
Border Patrol union members disagreed.
The last time the National Guard was deployed to the border — in Texas in 2014 and borderwide in 2010 — troops assumed Border Patrol posts on the front lines, easing the workload, Judd said. Although National Guard members were restricted to an "observe and report" role and couldn't detain migrants, they still aided patrols.
"They were allowed to do a lot more than they are under the Trump administration. They were allowed to be in lookout and observation posts. They were allowed to be out grading the roads and mending fences. They were allowed to be our eyes and ears, freeing us up," Judd said.
This deployment, he said, has proved to be far more limited — despite the Trump administration's claims.
"They're not allowed to be in the public eye. They're not allowed to be in our lookout and observation posts, even in Texas," he said, the busiest area of the border for migrants and drug smuggling.
Judd said agents had complained about the restrictions to National Guard commanders, but "they just ignore the concerns."
"We generally support the administration, but we're not going to be cheerleading when things are not going well," Judd said.
Union officials said the National Guard deployment is the latest reminder that the agency — which employs about 19,000 agents nationwide — needs to add 7,000 more. Provost agreed with union officials that the agency needs to hire 7,000 agents, but said that took time — the academy alone takes 117 days.
"At a time when we are asking for more agents, more technology, more wall, they're filling a gap," she said of National Guard troops.
When Trump announced the deployment, he called it a "big step."
"Until we can have a wall and proper security, we're going to be guarding our border with the military," Trump said, later tweeting: "We are sealing up our Southern Border."
More than 760 National Guard troops have been deployed to Texas, officials have said, mainly in El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley, according to Maj. Gen. John Nichols, Texas Military Department adjutant general. Nichols, addressing state lawmakers last month, said the deployment could last through mid-September.
Texas was the first state to act on Trump's call to deploy troops, also sending aircraft, ground surveillance vehicles and other equipment, officials said. Officials plan to add 300 troops per week until they reach 1,400, Angela Isaack, manager of the Legislative Budget Board, told lawmakers last month.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott backed the deployment, calling it "necessary in order to deal with an escalation in cross-border traffic." Abbott described the National Guard's "observe and report" role during a briefing last month as similar to previous deployments.
But that's not what's happening, agents in south Texas said.
Agent Chris Cabrera, a spokesman for the union in the Rio Grande Valley, said troops are stationed far from the border, duplicating rather than lessening agents' workload.
For instance, at observation stations for remote monitoring devices, like aerostat blimps, troops have to be stationed alongside agents, rather than replacing them, he said, because "they don't know the landmarks."
Also, while remote, unfenced stretches of the Rio Grande west of McAllen, Texas, frequented by drug smugglers go unguarded, he said, troops weld gates and fix roads, jobs he described as "busy work."
"It's a far cry from the last deployment when they were on the levies" by the Rio Grande, he said.
Cabrera shared text messages he received this week from three agents based in McAllen, including a supervisor, supporting the union's claims. While National Guard helicopter flights have helped, troops on the ground have been limited.
"It's not saving any manpower yet," an agent wrote, and other than the air support, he said the deployment has "been a waste."
"You would think that they could put some of those guard members in some of the control points to allow the agents [to] actually go out and work the field but that has not been done," another agent wrote.
A third agent said: "They aren't out in the field like last time, doing the observation points. So if the goal was to get more agents out to the line, they have fallen short."
Some lawmakers have also criticized the deployment.
"The National Guard deployment is a waste of finite resources, and is duplicative of existing border security efforts," said Texas Rep. Mary E. Gonzalez, who represents a district outside El Paso.
The borderwide National Guard deployment is expected to cost the federal government $220 million to $252 million through the end of the year, according to Christopher Sherwood, a Department of Defense spokesman. That includes $204 million to $221 million in pay and support costs for 3,143 troops and $16 million to $31 million for 12,000 flying hours by 26 UH-72 Lakota helicopters, Sherwood said.
That price tag will likely swell. When Presidents Obama and George W. Bush deployed the National Guard to the border, it ultimately cost an estimated $1.35 billion, according to the Government Accountability Office. In 2014, Texas paid $12 million a month to deploy 1,000 National Guard troops (that dropped to about $1 million a month earlier this year as illegal crossings decreased and troops were reduced).
Texas National Guard leaders have declined repeated requests by the Los Angeles Times to accompany troops stationed on the southern border and to speak with commanders, most recently on Thursday.
Some border officials defended the deployment.
Laredo, Texas, Mayor Pete Saenz said he checked the union's claims with the local Border Patrol commander Thursday, and was reassured.
"From his standpoint, they have been a tremendous help — National Guard troops, primarily for situational awareness, behind the scenes," Saenz said.
While troops were "not used for law enforcement," they have logged 2,000 hours of helicopter surveillance "for detection" and "that's been extremely helpful for the chief and the Border Patrol people here."
"It's not been a waste at all," Saenz said, adding the residents had not been disturbed by the presence of troops. "Nothing has reached me or city management that it's been disruptive. It's been somewhat quiet frankly. If the chief of Border Patrol says he's happy with it, who am I to second-guess him?"
7:20 p.m.: The article was updated with comments from Katie Waldman and new figures on apprehensions and deportations.