First Lt. James Falquet and several fellow members of the Virginia National Guard were sitting on a hill outside Nogales, Ariz., under a scorching September sun, peering deep into Mexican territory and searching for anyone attempting to cross the border.
As the army guardsman scanned miles of barren desert through binoculars, the conversation inevitably drifted back to the vexing issue of how best to stem the flow of people who attempt to illegally enter America every year.
Back in Washington, senators were putting the finishing touches on a bill that proposed the construction of a 700-mile, double-layered wall to prevent people from sneaking into the country from Mexico.
Yet from the side of a hill overlooking the desolate and inaccessible terrain, the idea of a wall as a panacea seemed naïve to Falquet, who was one of more than 400 Virginia soldiers and airmen who spent a two-month stint patrolling a 163-mile stretch of the Arizona border this summer.
These people are determined to enter America in hopes of providing a better future for their children, Falquet, an Arlington resident, thought. They are willing to risk their lives to escape crippling poverty in Mexico and will find a way to circumvent the wall.
"People have this impression that the border is like a backyard, where you can put up a little fence and it will be secure," Falquet said last week, sitting in his townhouse in Fairlington. "When you stand on the mountain tops and see the vast area that has to be monitored, you begin to realize how big the scope of this problem is."
What is needed, Falquet contends, is a more robust presence on the border and a dramatic rethinking of the nation’s immigration system to give individuals a more straightforward path to citizenship.
"A total systematic overhaul needs to happen," Falquet said.
WHEN FALQUET RECEIVED a call in late June asking if he would volunteer to deploy to the border for a two-month assignment, he agreed without hesitation.
The mission was part of "Operation Jump Start," President George W. Bush’s initiative to send National Guard troops to patrol the border.
"We sent a call out for volunteers and got a tremendous response," said Lt. Col. Chester C. Carter III, public affairs officer for the Virginia National Guard. "They saw the country and commonwealth calling on them, and they rose to the occasion."
Falquet had been closely following the heated immigration debate that played out in Congress earlier in the year, and was eager to learn more about what was really happening on the nation’s southern border.
"I had seen all the discussions on the news and wanted to see the border for myself," said Falquet, 31.
Falquet took a leave of absence from his job as a contractor with the State Department’s Near East Asia bureau, where he helped facilitate reconstruction projects and coordinate inter-agency communications at the U.S. embassy in Iraq.
For most of his time in Arizona, Falquet was stationed at the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol headquarters in Tucson, where he would analyze daily intelligence reports from agents inspecting the border. He also rode along with border control officials to assess checkpoints.
The vast majority of the other guardsmen were placed at 32 different "entry identification sites," from which they would monitor the border and alert patrol officials if anyone crossed into American territory.
The guardsmen did not have the authority to apprehend individuals. "Our mission was to staff these sites and when an incursion across the border would occur, we would report that to U.S. Customs and border protection, who had the responsibilities to detain them," Carter said.
During the two-month stay along the border, Virginia guardsmen helped border officials apprehend more than 500 illegal immigrants, Carter said. Another 400 individuals turned back from the border once they noticed the identification teams, he added.
The Virginia guardsman helped detain one man who was wanted in Fairfax County on a felony, said Major Mike Martin, a captain with the Waynesboro, Va., police force. The man had escaped to his native Mexico after being arrested in Fairfax, and was caught trying to re-enter the country.
Some of those apprehended had turned themselves in at checkpoints, having run out of water and food. "They just came up to the side of the road and surrendered," Falquet said.
With temperatures approaching 115 degrees, Falquet said he feared that some of those crossing might perish in the heat and inhospitable terrain.
THE VIRGINIA GUARDSMEN were surprised how many of those caught sneaking across the border were involved in drug trafficking, Falquet said. The guardsmen assisted agents in seizing more than 900 pounds of marijuana in a little more than eight weeks.
The drug trade on the border was "extremely sophisticated," Falquet said, with many smugglers wearing camouflage and using radios and night-vision goggles.
"You hear a lot about drugs crossing the border, but it [is still shocking] to see people walking in the desert with 50 pounds of marijuana on their backs," he added.
The porous nature of the border — in many spots one can not tell where America ends and Mexico begins — and the difficulty his men experienced in trying to guard such a vast stretch of land, convinced Falquet that the federal government’s security strategy needs to be revamped.
He is dismissive of those who think a massive wall will stop individuals from making it across the border. "Some people look to a wall as a solution, but it is just one small, little piece," he said.
Others who served with Falquet came to the same conclusion. Martin believes that building a fence is not a good use of federal funds, because individuals will still find ways to climb over or dig under the wall.
The key to preventing people from entering Arizona and then spreading out to other states is hundreds, if not thousands, more agents to patrol the border, both Martin and Falquet said.
Due to the paucity of agents guarding the border, crossing into America "is like shooting a beebee through a tennis net," Martin said.
U.S. customs officials desperately need access to military technology such as Predator drones to help them watch hundreds of miles of difficult terrain, Falquet added.
Falquet believes the federal government must also simplify the process for attaining U.S. citizenship, so individuals in Mexico have an alternative to risking their lives by attempting to sneak across the desert.
"One can be pro-immigrant and pro-border security," Falquet said.