AUSTIN — Democratic state lawmakers questioned Tuesday what Texas will gain by committing more than $4 million a week to pump up border security amid a surge of immigrant children illegally crossing into the U.S., since all sides agree the minors pose little criminal or national security threat.
Gov. Rick Perry announced the deployment of 1,000 National Guard troops to the Texas-Mexico border at a cost of about $3 million a week, saying federal authorities are overwhelmed and crime has spiked.
Since last month, he and other top Republicans, meanwhile, also have authorized spending $1.3 million more weekly on increasing police presence on the border.
But some members of a state House committee studying the budgetary impact of border security questioned the wisdom of the law enforcement surge if the focus wasn’t on children.
“Since we’re going to pay for it, and we’ve got to decide where it’s coming from ... what are we purchasing?” asked Rep. Sylvester Turner, a Houston Democrat. “And tell me, when will I know that this has been successful, when it has been worth the money that’s been spent?”
More than 57,000 unaccompanied children have poured into the U.S. illegally since October, most in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley.
Steve McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, said federal authorities have been too distracted to cope with other types of crime — and all forms of immigrants sneaking into the U.S. benefit dangerous smuggling gangs.
“Kids aren’t criminals, but they’re being moved across by criminals — and those criminals are the cartels,” McCraw told the committee, saying smugglers collect at least between $1,000 and $2,000 per child they help reach U.S. soil.
Since June 18, McCraw’s agency has launched an “operational surge,” meaning more helicopters, armed boats and police on the border. Citing security reasons, he wouldn’t disclose how many troopers were involved but said it had so far cost more than $5.8 million, including $4.4 million in overtime pay.
McCraw said during the surge, the number of detained immigrants of all ages crossing into the Rio Grande Valley declined 45 percent. The current surge is scheduled to last at least until January, but McCraw said he’d hope to continue it until it’s impossible to sneak across the U.S. border between established border crossings.
“Can the border be secured? Absolutely,” he said. “It’s not rocket science; it’s math. ... You can secure it with sufficient numbers.”
Still, Democratic Rep. Donna Howard of Austin said she was “a little confused about how we’re going to be determining success” if Texas was trying to slow all illegal border crossings and other criminal activity — rather than focus on the current spike in children.
“The children are really not a factor at all?” she asked. McCraw responded: “It brought focus to how many children can come so easily across.”
The committee’s chairman, Arlington Republican Rep. Dennis Bonnen, countered that there’s been “way too much focus on the children” and other criminal activities on the border were overlooked.
Meanwhile, Maj. Gen. John Nichols of the Texas National Guard said his forces would focus on deterring illegal border crossings and other crimes — and wouldn’t be “dealing with the children at all” except to turn them over to Border Patrol.
Perry repeatedly asked President Barack Obama to deploy the National Guard to the Texas-Mexico border before issuing the order unilaterally, meaning Texas will have to cover the costs. The state, though, hopes Washington will eventually reimburse it.
Nichols said though his forces have no indication of how long they will be deployed, they’ve planned to be on the border a year.
On a conference call with New Hampshire reporters Tuesday, Perry was asked how long he’d be willing to keep National Guard troops on the border even if the federal government never picks up the tab.
“That’s a question of when you want to leave the battlefield,” the governor said. “We’re going to spend whatever we need in the state of Texas to protect our citizens. That’s what we expect, and that’s what we will do.”