Parsing Governor Abbott’s National Guard Charade
It started with a pair of helicopters taking off last Friday from an airstrip in Austin. On board was the first handful of Texas National Guard troops bound for the Texas-Mexico border, a few hundred miles south. The Texas Military Department even made sure to directly advertise the takeoff to various TV stations on Twitter so no one would miss the spectacle. Watching the press conference, you might’ve thought “the border” was a faraway country to be invaded — rather than a region that millions of Texans call home — and you might’ve thought, too, that the whole damn thing was just for show.
On Thursday afternoon, Governor Greg Abbott hosted the show’s second episode, deploying himself to Weslaco for a security briefing and press conference. Cameras rolled for around a half hour as a few dozen troops in fatigues shifted restlessly from foot to foot, until the governor arrived and an officer called them dramatically to attention.
Abbott led with numbers: Around 750 Guard members had been deployed thus far out of a likely 1,400 total. The troops will be shoring up security, he explained, not by apprehending illegal crossers, but by taking over surveillance and helicopter operation duties, which will free up Border Patrol to do more apprehensions. Some of the troops have been photographed with mounted machine guns and assault rifles, though Abbott didn’t specify what they’d be doing with those.
Abbott then launched into what’s become a well-worn script about the dangers of the border, including the use of dubious statistics.
“There has been an increase of more than 200 percent of people coming across the border without authority; there’s been an increase of more than 200 percent of heroin coming across the border illegally,” Abbott said. “Stunningly and disturbingly, there’s been an increase of more than 200 percent of MS-13 coming across the border. The cross-border activity is posing serious threats and dangers.”
If not wrong, the governor’s statistics were at least selective. It’s true, for instance, that Customs and Border Protection apprehensions at the border — including migrants who turn themselves in to agents at bridges — have increased 200 percent compared to March of last year. But March 2017 was an anomaly. The so-called Trump effect had temporarily brought border crossings to an historic low of about 16,000. Last month’s numbers, around 50,000, were more in line with recent years, and they still paled in comparison to apprehensions in any year from the early ’80s through the end of George W. Bush’s tenure.
Moreover, by Abbott’s own admission, the most dramatic spike has been in unaccompanied minors and families arriving at the border. Largely from Central America’s violent Northern Triangle, these migrants typically turn themselves in at ports of entry or shortly after crossing the Rio Grande, in order to ask for asylum. It’s hard to see how a surge in troops at the border will guard Americans against refugees, many of them women and children, who aren’t even trying to evade capture.
Abbott also claimed that the National Guard’s presence would please border residents, because the troops would aid in a crackdown on “vehicles out of control” driven by drug smugglers who imperil “Texans and Americans who are lawfully driving down the road.” The governor neglected to mention the border residents who were outside chanting “Hey hey, ho ho! The National Guard has got to go!”
But all of it made for good Republican politics, just as it did for Rick Perry in 2014. Abbott repeatedly praised President Trump Thursday for calling for the National Guard deployment and funding it through the Department of Defense. In a refrain he never tires of, Abbott compared Trump favorably to Obama, who he said forced Texas to defend the border on its own dime. Abbott even assured a reporter that Trump’s decision had “nothing to do with” the president’s reaction to right-wing media coverage of a caravan of Central American migrants. It was all just coincidental timing.
With the feds paying for the National Guard deployment, would the state now be able to ramp down its own $800 million border security operation? Abbott never answered; he was busy shaking hands with the troops.