LAREDO — A dispute between the Army and the National Guard is jeopardizing the security role the Guard has played along the U.S.-Mexico border since 2006, a newspaper reported Sunday.

The problems arise as the National Guard becomes more proficient at pinpointing illegal crossings along the border and as agents struggle with an influx of immigrants — especially unaccompanied minors — fleeing poverty and gang violence in Central America.

The National Guard began operating along the border in 2006 when then-President George W. Bush ordered 6,000 troops to the area. Since then, the troops’ mission has evolved, and today about 300 Guard soldiers work along the border. Ground patrols have largely been replaced by nighttime helicopter missions, according to the Austin American-Statesman.

“Make this a more long-term program, a more planned, budgeted program,” Maj. Gen. William “Len” Smith of the Texas National Guard said.

The current dispute comes from the Army facing budget cuts that could strip it of a fleet of Kiowa helicopters. The Army wants to replace the Kiowas with about 100 Lakota helicopters. Those aircraft could come from the National Guard, leaving that unit with little air capacity of its own.

If the National Guard loses 100 of its helicopters, Smith told the newspaper “we’d have to commit almost all the rest of our (14) Lakotas to that mission, or stop it, neither one being preferable.”

The Guard’s border role has been controversial from the start. When Bush ordered 6,000 soldiers to the border, critics said it would militarize the area. Since then, that role has been scaled back, but appears to be more cost-effective and efficient.

In 2010, when President Barack Obama reactivated the Guard’s border mission, it was credited with apprehending about 4,000 immigrants over 18 months. But the airborne mission, which began in March 2012, has netted 10 times as many over 18 months. In addition, it cost $35 million to run the air operation compared to the $110 million price tag of earlier missions, state and federal officials said. In 2006-07, the National Guard’s border presence cost $1.3 billion.

Still, Victor Manjarrez, associate director at the University of Texas-El Paso’s National Center for Border Security and Immigration, wonders whether the helicopter flights are the best use of the National Guard.

“Air operations are rather expensive,” said Manjarrez, a former Border Patrol supervisor. “The ability to see things is much greater now than it was 10 years ago, and (National Guard) air operations almost duplicate some of those efforts. My question is, ‘Is that still the best bang for the buck?’”

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