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National Guard on job in Calexico

March 18, 2002|By AARON CLAVERIE

Staff Writer

CALEXICO — Around 20 camouflage-wearing National Guard troops marched to a briefing room inside Calexico's downtown Port of Entry this morning after working the graveyard shift here.

Most had already taken off their berets.

This group and units at the Calexicos East and Andrade ports of entry were almost finished with their first full shifts.

The group at the downtown port had just worked from midnight to 7:45 a.m. After a 15-minute meeting, they were allowed to go home and get a good day's sleep.

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During their time in inspections, the troopers checked bags, crawled underneath puttering late-model hatchbacks, looked for drugs and scrutinized paperwork.

Last week small groups of troops received on-the-job training. From now until the Pentagon sends them home, the troopers are working full 40-hour weeks.

To make sure the 266 troopers stationed here actually help ease border congestion and increase safety, the area's U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service ports director, Michael Freeman, is asking for their feedback.

After every shift the troops work, INS inspectors will conduct debriefing sessions.

"We ask questions: ‘What could we have done better for you?'; ‘How was your day?' Or we tell them, ‘You should be doing it this way, ' " he said.

At those sessions, the troopers have a chance to vent their concerns as well.

So far, Freeman said, everything has been running smoothly and there have been no complaints from troopers or border-crossers.

Freeman said the rank-and-file troops treat the assignment at the border as just another job.

"A lot of them volunteered," he added.

Critics of the National Guard deployment to U.S. ports of entry contend the inexperienced men and women in green could create longer border waits because INS inspectors will have to monitor and protect the unarmed troopers.

Actually, Freeman said, "It looks like they are going to be a big benefit."

After the first full group at each of the three local ports had finished their shifts this morning, Freeman said, "It's been going smooth — just as planned."

He said the Pentagon's decision to send the troopers here was a good one because the ports here have been understaffed since Sept. 11.

"The short staffing has been a strain on the officers," Freeman said.

>> Staff Writer Aaron Claverie can be reached at 337-3419 or claverie7@hotmail.com

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