Sells, Ariz. — Sells, Ariz.-- --Even from this height, almost 100 feet above the cactus-covered desert floor and armed with high-powered binoculars, Spc. Donald Neuer struggles to identify the small black dots scurrying down the Baboquivari Mountains near the Mexican border.
Cattle? Horses? People?
The 21-year-old Maryland National Guard soldier immediately radios in a report to the U.S. Border Patrol. His confidence grows quickly: There are more than 30, he concludes, and they're human. He quickly tags them as UDAs -- undocumented aliens.
And they are still running, heading toward the thick mesquite brush along a bone-dry streambed known as a desert wash. He's about to lose them in the twilight.
"We're going after the guy with the tan shirt. He gave us, uh, the gesture," Neuer says.
In a few minutes, before day folds into night, Border Patrol agents swing into action.
Guided by Neuer and his fellow soldiers, they storm the darkened site about a mile away with an armada of ATVs and motorcycles and their noisy helicopter hovering over it all.
Neuer and 120 fellow volunteers from the Maryland National Guard have been dispatched to the Sonoran Desert as part of a stopgap interdiction measure announced in May by President Bush.
Critics have questioned whether sending up to 6,500 part-time soldiers to watch the southern border is wise for a National Guard still saddled with commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan. They asked whether the Guard should be engaged in a seemingly extracurricular homeland security mission when its leaders struggle to recruit more soldiers and retain the guardsmen in their ranks today.
Before Sept. 11, 2001, signing up for the National Guard largely meant spending weekends doing training exercises, protecting communities during natural disasters and answering a rare call to defend abroad. Now, those who join could be serving in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and standing on the Mexican border.
Watching the flow of people crossing the border every day, some of the Marylanders admit, has been eye-opening and disturbing, causing some to question the nation's immigration policies. Several guardsmen here are still waiting to become citizens and sympathize with those seeking to come to America.
Feel like strangers
Moreover, the Marylanders say they sometimes feel like strangers in a strange land, conducting operations in the country's second-largest Native American reservation.
But they also believe their efforts are paying off. Their presence, they said, also gives the Border Patrol extra time to train 6,000 new agents over the next two years.
"I think the biggest surprise was the level of activity of people crossing the border and what the Border Patrol agents have been up against for the last several years," said Capt. Brian Perez, commander of the Maryland unit here. "The number of people coming across daily is just incredible."
More than a million suspected illegal immigrants were caught last year along the southwest border alone. The Border Patrol does not estimate how many its agents failed to catch.
The guardsmen knew their assignment would take them to south-central Arizona for about 60 days, a tour that ends later this month. Once they arrived in early August, the guardsmen learned more about their unusual destination: All of their surveillance outposts are within the independent Tohono O'odham nation.
Bordered by Arizona to the north, east and west and to the south for 74 miles with Mexico, about 14,000 Native Americans, live on these traditional lands that match the size of Connecticut and straddle the U.S.-Mexican border.
Its sparsely populated and unforgiving topography -- with miles to go before reaching a town or city, much less a decent drink of water -- has turned the Tohono O'odham lands into one of the deadliest illegal border crossings. In parts, its plains stretch out unmercifully, littered with empty water bottles and discarded clothing. This year, 56 immigrants have died here.
"We found some of them hanging who committed suicide," said the tribe's assistant police chief, Joseph Delgado. "One time, we found they were close to death and they had buried themselves in the dirt because of the heat."
Sgt. Tobias Nez joined the Nation's police department 25 years ago when it had about 20 officers. Today, inundated by illegal immigrants, his department has 70 officers.
While most illegal immigrants only seek safe passage, he said, tribal members have also seen their homes broken into and occasionally have become victims of assaults and kidnappings. Last year, Tohono O'odham officials estimate its tribe spent $2.7 million in border-related expenditures, from death investigations to drug-smuggling cases.
Still, not every tribal member was pleased about the Guard's arrival. Their legislative body unanimously passed a law this summer to permit the Guard, but the legislation contains restrictions governing how and where the soldiers can operate.
In addition to the soldiers, about 800 American border guards swarm over traditional Native American lands.
"By militarizing the border, the federal government is violating the sovereignty of the Tohono O'odham nation in the name of homeland security," James Riding In, associate professor of American Indian studies at Arizona State University, told Indian Today in July.
Officials also worry that some tribal members benefit from the illegal migration.
"People need to acknowledge that some of us make money from the smuggling that goes on here," said David Garcia, 54, a former member of one of the tribe's 11 district legislative councils in Itak.
The soldiers say they try to tread softly while carrying their M-16s.
They walk as gingerly around the spindly ocotillo plants as they do around the flutter of pink flags that tribal members use to mark their sacred sites. A Native American ecologist warned them to enter sensitively and leave their rocky observation posts as they found them.
A seemingly random pile of rocks, according to tribal archeologists, might in fact be a burial marker or the crumbling wall of an ancestral ruin.
"It's definitely been a learning experience," Perez said. "There have been a number of cultural challenges. It's not where we normally go. Once again, they own this land, they govern this land. ... They have been really wonderful."
Because the tribe's traditional boundaries stretch across the U.S.-Mexico border, armed Border Patrol agents are empowered to stop residents and request that they produce papers proving their citizenship.
"It's a unique challenge for the Border Patrol," said Gustavo Soto, a spokesman for the Border Patrol's Tucson sector.
Critics inside the Nation sometimes complain that agents rotate in and out so often they don't get to know who are the legitimate tribal members. They also point to the accidental road death of a young O'odham man who was struck and killed by a border agent's vehicle in 2002.
How well the Maryland guardsmen perform could help determine how long tribal leaders support the president's strategy. For now, it's seen as a successful but uneasy alliance.
'We live in fear'
"We live in fear," Tohono O'Odham Nation Chairwoman Vivian Juan Saunders says. "It's why tribal members have taken a position that they would not have 10 or 15 years ago. We're continuing to improve our communication. The Guard has many troops coming and going. We're trying to keep track of them."
So does Perez.
In 24-hour shifts, his soldiers in four-man teams occupy seven hilltops with sweeping views of the desert plain: Little Egypt, Topawa, North and South Animos, Chi Chi, Cow Hill and No Hair.
Before heading into the desert, soldiers stop about 20 miles from their Tucson hotel at the local armory of the Arizona National Guard, where soldiers sit at long tables, check and clean their weapons and slide their rounds into M-16 magazines.
They also take night-vision goggles, thermal detectors and infrared flashlights to aid their search for immigrants who regularly travel under the cover of night.
Electronic sensors along the border alert agents to crossers, but hundreds a day escape capture.
From their rocky vantage points, Maryland's citizen soldiers sleep under the stars, swat away buzzing flies and try to stay cool under large blue tarps when the temperature tops 100 degrees. The Maryland Guardsmen largely expressed support for their assignment.
"I figured my family came up here the right way, why can't they?" said Pfc. Colin Dawkins, 19, of Silver Spring. His mother is Guyanese, and his father hails from Jamaica.
Sgt. Dan Atkinson, a 38-year-old landscape contractor from Millsboro who likes to stand on top of his Humvee and scan the horizon here for hours, however, said it was common and distressing to see illegal immigrants in his industry.
"They're poor people, and employers are taking advantage of them," he said "I think it should be a little easier for them to get into this country legally."
The deployed Maryland soldiers are largely drawn from the Annapolis-based 1st Squadron, 158th Cavalry of the 58th Infantry Brigade Combat Team. They also include members of an Olney-based infantry company just home from a year in Iraq.
"Compared to Iraq, I don't have to worry about IEDs," said Spc. Sergio Cruz, 33, of Gaithersburg, referring to improvised explosive devices. "We have to worry about drug smugglers."
The Peruvian carpenter said he understands the well-meaning Mexicans who yearn to cross the border for a better life.
But he and his friend, Spc. Doug Wildenberg, 34, of Towson, both believe any letdown in the security of the border would also encourage criminals to enter the country.
"You have to remember national security," said Cruz, who served in combat before he became an American citizen.
"It's given me a whole new perspective," Wildenberg said. "I mean, I think I appreciate more why people would want to come. But they need to come the right way."
Despite the challenges, the Border Patrol praises the Guard's effort, saying its soldiers have sent out a clear message to potential crossers to stay away.
So far this year, apprehensions are down about 9 percent in the Tucson sector, which includes the Tohono O'odham Nation.
"Personally, I feel that they are needed out there," Delgado of the Nation's police department says. "In the short time that they have been out there, I think we've seen a decrease in the UDAs out there and the amount of time the Nation police department is spending dealing with illegal immigration."
As Perez describes it: "We've gotten into a groove."