By Brian M. Rosenthal
Gov. Rick Perry's plan to send as many as 1,000 Texas National Guard troops to the Rio Grande Valley drew praise from fellow Republicans, criticism from rival Democrats and general indifference from some who actually live on the border.
Perry announced the plan in a packed news conference Monday, saying the guardsmen will support Texas Department of Public Safety officers sent south last month to fight crime while other authorities attempt to deal with a flood of unaccompanied children from Central America. "Operation Strong Safety," as the effort is called, is particularly aimed at Mexican drug cartels "trying to exploit this tragedy for their own criminal opportunities," he said.
About 57,000 Central American children have crossed the border in the last nine months, double the number who crossed illegally last year. Meanwhile, DPS Director Steve McCraw said, some 8,500 immigrants who were in the country illegally were booked in Texas jails between April and June for a variety of crimes.
The National Guard troops, who will deploy gradually over the next month, will not actively arrest suspected criminals or patrol the border, officials said. Instead, they will act as "force multipliers" by providing tactical support from the ground and air.
The deployment is estimated to cost $12 million a month, in addition to the roughly $5 million-a-month DPS surge. It is unclear where the money will come from, although officials hope the federal government will reimburse the state.
Perry, an outgoing governor and potential 2016 presidential candidate who repeatedly has asked President Obama to activate the National Guard, said federal inaction forced him to use executive authority to do it himself.
"I cannot stand idly by while our citizens are under assault and little children from Central America are detained in squalor," the governor said. "We are too good a country for that."
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest in his daily briefing called the move a "symbolic" action of limited use. Obama has called on Congress to approve $3.7 billion in border aid for the immediate crisis involving unaccompanied children and comprehensive immigration reform to beef up the border and provide a pathway to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants already in the United States.
Perry's announcement split Texans in Congress largely along party lines.
GOP U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, for example, praised Perry for "acting to fill the leadership vacuum we've seen from President Obama during this crisis." Democratic U.S. Rep. Gene Green of Houston, on the other hand, said "militarizing" America's southern border is a bad idea -- "these children aren't criminals, and they're not a threat to national security," he said.
Perry called descriptions of the deployment as a militarization "frankly, a little offensive" because of the National Guard's humanitarian work.
Along the border itself, officials doubted whether Perry's plan would do anything at all.
Top officials in Cameron, Hidalgo and Starr counties agreed new guardsmen would not change much on the border.
Cameron County Sheriff Omar Lucio said he has not noticed a crime increase in recent months and that National Guard troops do not have authority to arrest and question illegal immigrants.
"I really don't know what they're going to do," Lucio said. "The National Guard is trained in warfare. They're not trained in law enforcement. This is not a war. This is people asking for help."
Texas Adjutant General John Nichols said at Perry's news conference that guardsmen do have the power to detain, but the plan is for them not to do so.
Nichols and other officials said the Department of Public Safety officers already are having success, noting that criminal apprehensions have dropped by a third over the past three weeks.
Starr County Judge Eloy Vera questioned the effort.
"Those DPS people that are down here," Vera said. "There's one every mile, or every half a mile. And then every once in a while you'll see a cluster or three or four of them chatting. They are doing absolutely nothing."
Vera said he thought the National Guard deployment would not do anything because that is what happened when guardsmen were sent to the border previously, in 2006 and 2010.
Pressure for surge
President George W. Bush sent 6,000 Guardsmen to the southern border in 2006. Obama extended that commitment and sent about 1,200 troops in 2010.
This year, pressure for another surge has mounted as the wave of unaccompanied minors continued.
Perry requested 1,000 National Guard troops, along with other border aid, in a June 20 letter to Obama and reiterated the request in a meeting when the president visited Texas on a fundraising trip earlier this month.
Earnest, the White House press secretary, said Monday that Obama "signaled his openness to this kind of proposal" during that meeting. However, he added, "this administration does not see it in any way as a substitute for the kind of more enduring response that this administration has sought."
The press secretary, speaking two hours before Perry's announcement, also said the administration had yet to receive any formal communication about the deployment.
Some South Texas lawmakers and other officials also complained about not being notified of the deployment, which became public when the McAllen Monitor obtained a memo about it Sunday night.
Perry and other officials said at the news conference that if the federal government does not agree to reimburse the costs of the $12 million per month deployment -- $9.8 million for personnel and vehicle costs and $2.4 million for helicopters -- the state is prepared to take legal action to get the reimbursement.
"Texans are prepared to put the boots on the ground to secure the border," said Attorney General Greg Abbott, who already has said he is thinking about suing the federal government over the border crisis. "But we expect Washington to foot the bill."
Until then, the Legislature will have to find the money in its budget.
State House Speaker Joe Straus said in a statement that lawmakers will discuss how to pay for the deployment.
"As the costs associated with securing the border continue to escalate, the House will consider all options to address the governor's emergency declaration," he said.
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