Two Mexican scofflaws climb over the border fence in Nogales, Mexico on March 12.
Photo credit: Tim Johnson/MCT
AUSTIN, TX -- Leaders along the Texas border with Mexico slammed Gov. Rick Perry's move Monday to send 1,000 National Guard troops to South Texas, saying overwhelmed counties need law enforcement and charitable aid, not militarization.
Perry portrayed his decision as necessary to help U.S. Border Patrol agents overwhelmed by an estimated stream of 60,000 unaccompanied children from Central America. With border security spread thin and distracted, drug cartels and human traffickers might push into a state where their crimes already have taken a toll, he said.
"Thousands of lives have been impacted forever. All because of the federal government's lip service and empty promises," Perry said.
Joined by top state officials, he displayed a chart showing people in the country illegally have been arrested over the past six years in connection with more than 16,000 major crimes and more than 100,000 drug and other crimes in Texas. They estimated the cost of deploying the Guard at $12 million a month -- a state obligation that Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and others said they hoped the federal government would eventually reimburse.
Perry called the troops a "force multiplier" to help law enforcement stop criminals at the border. The Guard troops will be embedded with state troopers because they cannot legally detain someone on their own authority.
Texas leaders, he said, could "not stand idly by."
Sheriffs and others along the border said they had not been consulted. They questioned the wisdom of sending military personnel who are not authorized to stop anyone.
"At this time, a lot of people do things for political reasons. I don't know that it helps," said Cameron County Sheriff Omar Lucio.
He and other sheriffs said spending money to hire more deputies and police makes more sense. Lucio said deputies, police and the U.S. Border Patrol work well together and that they have been able to handle the small uptick in crime along the border.
"I don't know what good they can do," Lucio said of military personnel. "You just can't come out here and be a police officer."
Adj. Gen. John Nichols, commander of the Texas National Guard, said his troops have supported Department of Public Safety operations during weather-related and other disasters.
He said the troops would undergo training and be deployed slowly over the next month. Helicopter pilots would help identify suspicious activity, and ground troops would be supplied with water and have some medical training if they encountered children or others who have entered the country illegally.
"We are not planning on detaining people," he said, but will help direct law enforcement. The mission will be "referring and deterring," Nichols said.
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Laredo Democrat who has worked to try to speed deportations of Central American chidlren, said that it would help the Border Patrol if Texas troops could take over administrative tasks so agents can spend more time in the field.
"I welcome the National Guard -- but not to militarize, not to do immigration patrol, because they don't have the authority to do that," he said.
Perry has seized on the border issue, blasting President Barack Obama and the federal government in general on national news shows and at political events around the country.
It's won him applause from Republicans he seeks to court in a potential second run for president. He won credit for drawing Obama into a meeting two weeks ago with Obama in Dallas to discuss the border. And his strong stance on border issues has caused its own surge of national publicity and a bump in early presidential polls.
Perry gave no indication how the state would shift money to pay for the action -- although an early memo from his office cited potential cuts from transportation and health services, areas of state government that are frequently strapped.
Attorney General Greg Abbott -- the Republican aiming to follow Perry as governor -- was also at Perry's announcement, saying his office was offering help with legal issues arising from the use of military personnel.
"This crisis is a public safety priority, and deploying the National Guard to the border is crucial to address the organized criminal activity by cartels and international gangs," Abbott said.
U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said use of the Guard "as a force multiplier is long overdue." It will help the Border Patrol gain control, he said, while Obama "continues to abdicate his constitutional responsibility."
More than 3,000 Border Patrol officers work in the South Texas region. With increased resources along the border and the slower U.S. economy, illegal crossings had dropped by nearly two-thirds from 2007 to 2012.
In the past several years, Texas has spent almost $800 million to beef up the border with Department of Public Safety troopers and equipment.
Democrats said the deployment was mostly for show. Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth, Abbott's Democratic opponent this fall, reiterated her call for a special legislative session to aid police and border communities.
"The need for action remains, given the continued failure by our leaders in Washington to live up to their responsibility to secure our border," she said in a written statement.
"However, we should be deploying additional deputy sheriffs to the border like local law enforcement is calling for, rather than Texas National Guard units who aren't even authorized to make arrests," she said.
Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, who represents the border area, said if crime were a reason to call out the National Guard, then based on statistics, the troops would be better sent to Dallas and Houston.
He said immigration is a polarizing issue and calling in troops is "a very simplistic answer to a complex problem" that involves gangs and poverty in Central America, desperate families and a broken immigration system.
Saying he opposed militarizing the border, Hinojosa said: "We live in the Valley, we work in the Valley and we know what's going on in the Valley. Yet, politicians come in and politicize the issue without offering solutions."
Staff writer Kimberly Railey in Washington contributed to this report.
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