BASTROP, Texas (AP) – Gov. Rick Perry said Wednesday that sending National Guard troops to the Texas-Mexico border will defend not just his home state but the entire nation from "narco-terrorists" and that he doesn't know how long they will have to be deployed before the national threat is quelled.
The Republican's possible 2016 White House aspirations got a boost nationally last month when he ordered 1,000 National Guard troops to the Texas-Mexico border. Perry traveled to Camp Swift Army National Guard Training Center 30 miles outside Austin for a firsthand look at the training they are getting for deployment — while perhaps hoping to look presidential.
"You now are the tip of the spear protecting Americans from these cartels," Perry told hundreds of troops in camouflage. "As they are able to get past you they could be headed to any city, any neighborhood in this country, spreading their tentacles of crime, of fear."
Perry noted that crime committed by people in the U.S. illegally had affected not only Texas, but Iowa, South Carolina and North Carolina, all of which he's visited recently and two of which hold early presidential voting contests.
According to the Texas Department of Public Safety data that Perry frequently cites, 203,000 illegal immigrants have been charged since 2008 with more than 3,000 homicides and 8,000-plus sexual assaults. But federal data shows that, consistent with trends nationwide, crime along Texas' border has fallen in recent years. County sheriffs, state lawmakers and other border officials, meanwhile, have said the National Guard is unnecessary and that Perry is thinking of his political future above all else.
Perry though, scoffed at that notion Wednesday.
"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," he said.
Wearing jeans, a tan button-up shirt and a gray baseball cap to shield him from an unrelenting overhead sun, Perry on Wednesday briefly visited a shooting range, peered through long-distance optical equipment and poking his head inside parked Humvees during a training session for National Guard members who will be heading to the border.
The governor refused to say exactly when and where troops will be deployed, saying he didn't want to tip-off criminal gangs. The National Guard will not have arrest powers and will mostly just observe, referring anyone crossing the border illegally to federal authorities.
Perry ordered the deployment amid an influx of unaccompanied immigrant children pouring illegally onto U.S. soil, many fleeing gang and drug violence in Central America. But Perry has called the children a "side issue" and insists that the added military presence is actually meant to tamp down a crime wave that's come as federal border authorities are overwhelmed by the surge of immigrants.
The governor has said the operation will cost Texas $12 million per month, but in hearings at the state Legislature some have suggested that other logistical expenses will push it closer to $18 million monthly.
Perry used $38 million in a fund to provide new radio equipment for police agencies to pay for the deployment — but that may run out before the end of October and it is unclear where additional money will come from. Still, Perry said the deployment would be open-ended and that the federal government will eventually reimburse his state as part of its obligation to secure the nation's southern border.
"I don't know how long that goes but I know the people of the state of Texas will support what we're doing to secure that border until our friends in Washington understand that it is their constitutional requirement to secure that border," the governor said, adding that when he asked for a deployment of 1,000, some 2,200 National Guard troops volunteered for the mission.
Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak said Perry likely felt compelled to see the training for himself because he "knows he's calling these people up, uprooting them from their daily lives, their families, their full-time jobs and putting them in a potentially dangerous situation."
But he also noted that politically, it can't hurt Perry.
"It's a striking contrast where you have a governor who's taking action on immigration, who's demonstrating effective leadership at a time when the president's on vacation," Mackowiak said.