Does the deployment of 1,000 National Guard troops to the Texas-Mexico border make any sense? Politically, it makes a great deal of sense to the three state officials who attended the high-profile launch of the effort at a press conference in Austin on Monday. Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Attorney General Greg Abbott are taking charge of the situation and sending the boys in brown-green digicam down to the border, and they’re going to make sure the national media knows it.
At the press conference, Abbott and Dewhurst got to play a fun supporting role—if Obama doesn’t pay for the Guard deployment, we’ll sue him, they said—but this was by and large Perry’s show. He’s been benefiting greatly from this border episode among political observers in Washington, D.C., who value strong action and skillful media positioning. A lot of Republicans (and journalists eager to amplify the 2016 horserace) have been eager to let Perry redeem himself, so he’s won many unearned plaudits lately. What’s more presidential, after all, than the assertive application of military power?
From many in Perry’s conservative base, he’s been getting the opposite. They want “border security,” and they can’t understand why it wasn’t happened in the decade and a half that Perry’s served as governor. Many don’t trust him on this issue. Deploying the National Guard will assuage some members of this crew, at least for a bit.
But does the deployment of the National Guard make sense practically? Monday’s event shined little light on this question. Adjutant General John F. Nichols, head of the Texas Military Forces, gave sober and somewhat glum remarks that cut a stark contrast to the energized politicians around him. The National Guard would be a “force multiplier,” he said. The military will contribute air assets and night-vision equipment. The National Guard would draw on experience carrying out operations on the border in the past, Nichols said.
The National Guard is joining an ongoing Texas offensive called “Operation Strong Safety.” In football, a strong safety is a defensive player who lines up against the strong side of the play and is tasked with either stopping the run or dropping back for pass coverage. But once the troops get to the border, their hands will be essentially tied—they’ll be in the field but it’s hard to see what sort of “tackling” they’ll be doing.
The National Guard won’t actually take part in the enforcement activities of the Border Patrol—for that matter, neither can the DPS. “If we were asked to, we could detain people,” said Nichols. “But we’re not planning on that. We’re planning on referring and deterring.”
The best they can do is make a call to another agency, in the same way a bystander could. Even if they could, minors from Central America—the primary subject of the current crisis—are generally surrendering themselves to the Border Patrol the moment they get here.
It’s also the case that much of the current strain in our immigration system has to do specifically with the handling and processing of migrants after they’re taken into custody. The National Guard isn’t going to build better detention facilities, one presumes.
The Guard might contribute equipment to anti-trafficking and smuggling operations, but law enforcement officials along the border say they haven’t seen an increase in crime. Even if they did, the Border Patrol, the Texas Department of Public Safety and other law enforcement agencies, are already armed to the teeth, with helicopters, a small army of vehicles, unmanned drones and countless other pieces of military hardware. They’ve got a fleet of gunboats that wouldn’t have been out of place on the Mekong River Delta in the bad old days. Even the state’s game wardens have taken to approximating a military unit.
Last week, Gov. Perry conceded that the National Guard couldn’t do much to increase operational control of the border: The military’s presence, he told Fox News in a sometimes-tough interview with Brit Hume, would be primarily important as a “show of force,” to send “a strong message” and create unwelcoming “visuals.”
Even that’s an odd claim, though. It’s up for debate exactly how frightening lightly-armed part-time soldiers will be to migrants who grew up in some of the world’s most violent societies, then made a 2,000-mile trek past nations bristling with military, cops, border checkpoints and criminal gangs. One of the last times armed military units were deployed along the border, one Marine shot an 18-year-old in Big Bend.
And regardless, the National Guard won’t be fully deployed for a month, possibly late August, even though there’s some evidence the surge in border crossings was already in decline last week. Then there’s the cost—the deployment of the National Guard along with the ongoing “surge” of DPS troopers will bring the bill for the taxpayers of Texas to some $5 million a week. An intergovernmental memo obtained by The Monitor, a newspaper in the Rio Grande Valley, reports that “Perry’s office has said the money will come from ‘non critical’ areas, such as health care or transportation.”
At the conference, one reporter pointed out that border law enforcement reported no increase in crime. So why deploy troops now?
“I think an anecdotal questioning of one or two people may not give the full vision of what’s going on along the border,” said Perry, before relating an anecdote of his own about a criminal immigrant.
“The idea that the border is without crime is a very false statement,” Perry said, though no one had suggested that. “What we’re talking about here is clear data.” He pointed to a giant pie-chart that showed the kinds of crimes that undocumented immigrants have been arrested for in the course of the last six years. Nothing about the chart would indicate the changing levels of crime over time.
“This idea that somehow or other there’s a militarization going on is frankly a little offensive to the National Guard,” Perry said. The Guard had been down there before, and Guard members sometimes do charity medical work in the Rio Grande Valley. So it couldn’t be a militarization, could it? Maybe it’s the re-militarization.
As for the conservatives Perry might have hoped to win over with today’s press conference? Some seemed underwhelmed. “Apparently guardsmen are only going to the Rio Grand [sic] Valley sector—same place the [DPS surge] is focused,” wrote Julie McCarty of the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party. “That is not where they are needed. Nothing changes. Nearly 400 miles are still uncovered.”
Republicans have built a kind of trap for themselves—the border can’t really be “secured” in the way that many say when they’re on the campaign trail. But now they have to keep feeding that ill-founded belief. It’s like Slim Charles said: “That’s what war is. Once you in it, you in it. If it’s a lie, then you fight on that lie.” Or, you know, you send the National Guard to Pharr on that lie.
Correction: The article incorrectly stated that National Guard patrols would not be armed. A Guard spokesman clarified that troops “will be armed for self-defense purposes only.”