National Guard troops will be staying on the Southwest border, at least for a while longer.
Matt Chandler, spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, said the Department of Defense has agreed to a one-year extension of the agreement to provide -- and pay for -- soldiers to help. The mission had been scheduled to terminate at the end of the year.
The soldiers, first deployed in 2010, have been in support roles. Many of those stationed in Arizona have been part of "entry identification teams,'' posted along the border to report illegal crossing to Border Patrol.
This extended mission is smaller, involving just 300 soldiers along the border compared with the 1,200 who were first authorized as spotters and helping in Border Patrol and Customs Enforcement offices. But the effort to find border crossers this time continues to shift from the ground to the air.
"The National Guard's aerial support, which includes both rotary and fixed-wing aircraft, significantly enhances our ability to detect and deter illegal activity at the border,'' Chandler said. He said that is the kind of support needed by Border Patrol agents on the ground.
This shift also means lower costs.
The original deployment cost $140 million. A Department of Defense spokesman said the pricetag for the current mission going forward will be $60 million.
Chandler said having soldiers as eyes and ears is paying off. He said that since March this support has resulted in Border Patrol apprehending nearly 20,000 people crossing the Southwest border illegally and seizing more than 100,000 pounds of marijuana.
The move met with approval from Gov. Jan Brewer who has been openly critical of efforts by the Obama administration to secure the border. Gubernatorial press aide Matthew Benson called it "a step in the right direction.''
"Until you get properly staffed up with Border Patrol, it's important that we keep a National Guard presence along the border,'' he said.
The most recent figures from Customs and Border Protection show there are about 21,400 Border Patrol officers, with close to 18,500 of them on the Southwest border. That compares with fewer than 10,000 nationwide in 2001.
Benson said he cannot say how many agents would be enough. But he said the decision to extend the program a full year, versus in three-month commitments, shows that the administration recognizes the need.