On Thursday, the first Texas National Guard troops arrived at the U.S. border as part of Operation Strong Safety, Gov. Rick Perry's (R) unilateral border-security mission. And before rallying the border-bound troops at Camp Swift outside Austin on Wednesday, Perry had spent part of the week in Iowa, making not-so-subtle intimations that he will be coming back a lot before the first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses in 2016.
It's hard not to see those events as intimately connected. And sure, sending the National Guard to the border will probably get Perry some extra votes in the Iowa caucuses. But Iowa won't be footing the bill.
Perry says that he had to send 1,000 National Guard troops to the Rio Grande Valley because the federal government isn't doing enough to keep out "narco-terrorists" and illegal immigrants. The influx of 63,000 unaccompanied children since October, which has slowed significantly in the past few months, is a "side issue," Perry said on Wednesday. "You now are the tip of the spear protecting Americans from these cartels" and "their tentacles of crime, of fear," he told about 90 National Guard members, specifically mentioning the danger drug traffickers posed to Iowa, South Carolina, and a state that doesn't have an early presidential caucus or primary, North Carolina.
Democrats are openly and directly accusing Perry of sending down the National Guard for no other reason than his presidential ambitions. Perry took umbrage at that suggestion: "The idea that what we're doing is politics versus protecting the people of Texas, the people of this country is just false on its face."
But what other explanation is there, really? The border crisis that has grabbed everyone's attention is a "side issue" that Perry insists he isn't sending the troops to address. And the 63,000 young, mostly Central American migrants really are a problem for Texas — but a humanitarian problem, not a military one. The U.S. Border Patrol is struggling to house and care for these children, and some number of them will surely end up in Texas schools and social services programs.
The $17 million to $18 million a month that Perry is spending to fund his open-ended border operation looks shakier when you consider what the National Guard will be doing: Watching. The troops will have the authority to detain, but not arrest, immigrants. But mostly they are going to be manning watchtowers and truck-mounted surveillance equipment.
The Associated Press spoke with Rodolfo Espinoza, the police chief of Hidalgo, a Texas town a mile from the border where the first wave of National Guard troops landed. The two police towers that the troops took up watch in Thursday "have cameras that can pan the area and record activity," the AP's Christopher Sherman noted, though Espinoza said it's more useful to have people in the towers. "It is good to have them," Espinoza said, adding, "I think the only way you could secure the river is if every 10 yards you had someone standing there. It's impossible."
So who was crying for military reinforcements? The border-county sheriffs wanted more money, not National Guard troops. And at a July 29 hearing on the cost of Perry's operation, the heads of the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) and Texas National Guard — Steve McCraw and Maj. Gen. John Nichols, respectively — said they had not recommended that the governor deploy the National Guard, though, as the Houston Chronicle puts it, they were "appreciative of his idea."
Now, that's not to say nobody wants the National Guard at the border. The idea is very popular among Republicans nationwide, especially conservative and Tea Party–aligned Republicans who vote in primary elections. In a mid-July CNN/ORC poll, for example, 76 percent of Republicans said the main focus of U.S. immigration policy should be "stopping the flow of illegal immigrants into the U.S. and for deporting those already here," versus 49 percent of independents and 35 percent of Democrats.
In fact, a few days before Perry announced his National Guard deployment, a group of conservative and Tea Party activists met in Austin and publicly criticized him for his inaction, specifically urging the governor to send troops to the border. It's easy to see how a politician with his eye on 2016 might leap at the opportunity to please this group, even if his "solution" actually does nothing to truly address America's immigration problem. It's the optics that matter.
But back home, Texas Republicans are concerned about how Perry is paying for this. The governor redirected $38 million from a DPS allocation for radio equipment to finance the operation; $7 million of that is to pay for the beefed-up DPS presence in the valley and $31 million is for the National Guard deployment.
That money is expected to run out sometime in October, and Perry's plan to get the federal government to pay for his operation seems a little quixotic, given that Congress is doing almost nothing these days, and will probably do even less in the run-up to the crucial midterm elections in November. That means Texas taxpayers are on the hook.
"The border has got to be secured — we've got to stop this," said state Sen. Jane Nelson (R), the chairwoman of the Senate Finance Committee, who doesn't oppose the deployment. But "month by month, we're draining state resources that should go to education, should go to highways, should go to water, and we can't do it forever."
It should be noted that Texas taxpayers also pay for Perry's trips to Iowa (and Israel, and the Bahamas), but even at the height of his last run for president, in 2011 and early 2012, the bill for his security detail was only $400,000 a month. (A ruling this week by state Attorney General Greg Abbott — the GOP nominee to replace Perry as governor — means Texans will no longer get a detailed accounting of Perry's security expenses, despite a 2011 state law mandating their release.)
Look, $18 million a month — or $216 million a year, if extended — is a small slice of the state's $100 billion annual budget. But if Rick Perry's low-tax, low-service Texas is so frugal that it can't find enough money for things like transportation infrastructure and education — things that are important to the state's continuing economic growth — it's hard to argue that Operation Strong Safety is much of a good deal for anybody but Rick Perry.