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300 SC National Guardsmen remain at Mexican border. It's not clear when they'll come home.


U.S. Soldiers assigned to the 2-151st Security and Support Aviation Battalion, South Carolina Army National Guard depart the S.C. Technology and Aviation Center, Greenville, in a UH-72A Lakota helicopter May, 21, 2018, to provide support to the U.S. Border Patrol in Texas. The helicopter and soldiers will be providing aerial surveillance support along the Texas border. Sgt. Jorge Intriago/U.S. Army National Guard/Provided

There are more S.C. National Guard members stationed on America's southern border with Mexico than are deployed in missions overseas.

Around 300 South Carolina troops are in place at points along the 2,000-mile stretch dividing the U.S. border and Mexico. They are there assisting in what's been termed understaffed federal law enforcement amid a recent uptick in migrant crossings.

That includes assignments in support of the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection throughout the southern border states of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. 

It's a large number of soldiers for the Palmetto State to deploy.

And it's grown significantly since Gov. Henry McMaster announced he was first sending just a helicopter and three crew members to the area in 2018. 

By comparison, only 60 S.C. National Guardsmen remain overseas: 55 in Europe and five in the Middle East as many foreign assignments begin to wind down. 

Defense and White House officials have not said whether the mission, which is authorized through Sept. 30, will end sooner as President Joe Biden attempts to unwind some of the border policies that originated from the Trump administration.

And, while Biden hopes to dwindle the government's presence there, policy experts and government watchdogs believe it will be months and, maybe, even years before a significant number of troops, including from the S.C. Guard, leave the area. 

From three to 300

Since April 2018, Homeland Security has submitted 33 requests for assistance to the Department of Defense asking for soldiers, equipment and support, according to a February report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Almost from the start, McMaster, a Republican and close Trump ally, offered to lend a hand.

In May 2018, McMaster signed off on sending National Guard assistance from the state, taking to Twitter about deploying one UH-72 Lakota helicopter and three crew members from Greenville to the Texas border.

"President Trump is keeping his promise to secure our border, and South Carolina is proud to help," McMaster tweeted at the time. "Please join in thanking them for their service and praying for their safety and success in their mission."

Two years later, in May 2020, South Carolina was notified the federal mobilization would require a significant number of guardsmen to assist Trump's border agenda and the crucial need from the Department of Homeland Security.

Brian Symmes, a spokesman for McMaster, said in response to this story the governor "completely supports the critical mission of securing our southern border and the incredible, selfless work South Carolinians are doing in support of that mission."

South Carolina National Guard troops could have a variety of daily duties at the border. Historically, troops have helped federal law enforcement with "counterdrug, counter transnational organized crime, and other transnational threats," said Maj. Karla Evans, a spokeswoman for South Carolina's National Guard.

This could range from helping file paperwork on migrant travelers and helping fix vehicles to patrolling uncompleted sections of Trump's border wall project or providing surveillance. Many soldiers receive a per diem, which allows them to stay in nearby hotels and buy meals.

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While the S.C. National Guard's most recent deployments to Washington, D.C., last summer during racial justice protests and their activation for Biden's presidential inauguration have been heavily publicized by state officials, their presence on the border has not been as widely broadcast.

DHS lacks manpower

The cornerstone of Trump's 2016 campaign was building a sprawling border wall as his solution to stop undocumented immigrants and which would become a symbol for his "America First" policies. 

When he was president, Trump accelerated his push for the wall after he declared that migrant caravans traveling from Central America to the southern border was a major threat to national security. As the former president demanded more protection, the Department of Homeland Security continued to need more boots on the ground. 

Last summer was the highest number of National Guard troops from across the country at the southern border, around 5,500 in total. It has fluctuated below that in recent months. But the Department of Homeland Security has come to rely on the outside help. 

In a government watchdog report published in February, Homeland Security anticipated needing at least the same number of National Guard troops for the next three to five years. 

Mackenzie Eaglen, a research fellow at the nonprofit American Enterprise Institute in Washington, told The Post and Courier that it's unlikely that Biden will completely withdraw National Guard soldiers, including those available from South Carolina, from the border. 

"Since the Department of Homeland Security was established, they have been relying on supplemental support from U.S. military personnel on and off for two decades," Eaglen said. "I think (Biden) will reduce it in a meaningful level from Trump's numbers but, fundamentally, DHS lacks the manpower to fulfill its mission."

The Department of Homeland Security is hesitant to not ask for the help, especially because a recent influx of immigrants have been arriving at the southern border since Biden's inauguration.

Arrests and detention cases rose to nearly 78,000 in January, according to The Washington Post. Notably, it's the highest number for that month in at least a decade and more than double from the prior year.

Not their first rodeo

Traditionally, the South Carolina Army National Guard has a long history of providing border security support. S.C. troops were previously called on during Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Trump's presidency.  

In the late-1990s, the S.C. National Guard built part of the existing border wall in the San Diego area. In 2007, they provided 2-OH58 Kiowa aircraft and 20 personnel in support of security operations along the Arizona-Mexico border.

In 2012, the South Carolina Army National Guard helped the Texas Military Department provide surveillance for Customs and Border Patrol. In 2016, 15 South Carolina soldiers and two UH-72 Lakota helicopters were used to assist with an operation combating the war on drugs.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has been a vocal advocate of Trump's border wall agenda even as the president left office. Last month, he traveled to the border wall in Arizona and spoke with reporters about how he felt the Biden administration needed to fill the gaps in the wall and highlighted one open portion near Nogales. 

"They’re having to use labor-intensive efforts of manpower,” Graham told reporters. “They’re having people watch and ATVs going up and down. If they would just build these two panels, they could take those resources and apply it somewhere else."

A spokesman for Graham declined to comment on the South Carolina National Guard's presence at the border and if the senator felt their presence is necessary.

The border operation has cost around $939 million since fiscal year 2018, according to Pentagon figures last year cited by the Washington Post.

Reach Thomas Novelly at 843-937-5713. Follow him @TomNovelly on Twitter. 

Thomas Novelly is a political reporter based in Charleston. He also covers the military community and veterans throughout South Carolina. Previously, he wrote for the Courier Journal in Kentucky. He is a fan of Southern rock, bourbon and horse racing.