Friday, April 08, 2005

Illegal border crossings hinder training at AZ military bases

Who wants to tell me this isn't a HUGE national security issue - in more ways than ONE!?


Illegal immigrants found on test range

MARINE CORPS AIR STATION YUMA, Ariz. -- Marines preparing for combat in Iraq or Afghanistan have lost significant amounts of training time because undocumented immigrants from Mexico have constantly wandered onto a bombing test range in Arizona, according to the commander of this base along the border.

Virtually every Marine squadron headed to Iraq or Afghanistan receives combat training at the Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma, which for nearly 40 miles touches the US-Mexico border in the southwestern corner of Arizona. The Border Patrol's focus in recent years on tightening the border in the eastern part of the state, where volunteer citizens this month have established their own observation posts, has pushed more undocumented immigrants westward.

Since July 2004, the training range has been shut down more than 500 times because of immigrants spotted on the range, causing a loss of more than 1,100 training hours, said Colonel James J. Cooney, the base's commanding officer.

''That's equivalent to almost 46 days of training. We're getting overrun here," he said in an interview. ''Any moment we take away from a Marine's experience base could cost him his life in combat."

Cooney said Marines intercepted more than 1,500 undocumented immigrants on the training range last year and, in the first three months of this year, more than 1,100. Base personnel detain the immigrants and call in Border Patrol agents to pick them up.

''I have to use Marines that aren't trained in that to do that, which puts me at a liability," said Cooney, a Boston College graduate. ''It's completely counterproductive to our whole training operation."

Another big concern, he said, is the potential danger to undocumented immigrants: ''We just don't want them to come here, because we're firing lasers, we're shooting machine guns, we're shooting 209-millimeter cannons, and we're dropping practice bombs, and we don't want to hurt anyone."

Last summer a Marine pilot dropped a practice bomb on a target and seconds later, a few feet away, a small group of illegal immigrants scrambled from underneath a bush and ran down the range. The near miss was caught on a training tape that Cooney has reviewed.

So far the Marines said there have been no deaths of immigrants in the training exercises.

''My overall concern is that we'd have an unfortunate incident out there where we'd inadvertently harm an illegal entrant that we did not spot or see, and that in turn would cause a moratorium on training until we sorted out what exactly happened," said Cooney.

Two other bases in Arizona, one the Army's and another the Air Force's, have experienced similar problems.

At the Army Yuma Proving Ground, near the Marine Corps Air Station but about 30 miles north of the border, an increasing number of undocumented immigrants have invaded military space and disrupted training.

''The smugglers just drive them up the highway and dump them off, and these illegal immigrants stumble right onto our testing range," said Chuck Wullenjohn, spokesman for the Army base.

As one of the largest military installations in the Western world, the Army Yuma Proving Ground is constantly conducting tests for ground forces on artillery and ammunition, including tank rounds, mines, mortars, and helicopter guns.

''Having anyone on this range that doesn't belong here is extremely dangerous," said Wullenjohn. ''The illegal immigrant issue is becoming a bigger problem all the time."

The Air Force said it has had to interrupt exercises with F-16 pilots after undocumented immigrants were spotted on a bombing range east of Gila Bend, north of the border.

''In 2004 we suspended range operations 55 times for a net loss of 122 hours," said Jim Uken, director of the 56th Fighter Wing range management office.

There is some concern that, besides wandering immigrants, foreign terrorists could cross the Mexican border and infiltrate the Arizona bases to conduct intelligence gathering or commit acts of sabotage.

''The potential exists, and that is a key reason we are vigilant about securing our training ranges," Cooney said.

Robert C. Bonner, the commissioner of the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, said last week when he was visiting Arizona that more than half the undocumented immigrants entering the United States come through the state.

He promised that federal help is on the way.

Article courtesy of: ALIPAC