AUSTIN, Texas — The Texas House of Representatives’ Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety held a public meeting yesterday, and one of the key topics addressed was the deployment of National Guard troops to the Texas border, as well as other related operations in response to the border crisis. The committee, chaired by Representative Joe Pickett (D-El Paso), heard testimony from agency leaders, grassroots activists, and other concerned Texans.
Pickett opened the discussion of border issues by remarking that he lived on the border and that this was a complex issue, with “a lot of facts, and a lot of misinformation” going around, resulting in “frustration” in his community with people coming in and telling them what they already know. Pickett emphasized that he was optimistic that they would be able to find productive solutions, and that he believed that the discussion “will be positive for our nation” to address vital immigration and national security issues. Criticizing the divisive debates happening at the federal level, Pickett urged those testifying to avoiding making the situation a partisan issue.
The first group to testify included Department of Public Safety (DPS) Director Steven McCraw and Major General John Nichols, the Adjutant General of the Texas National Guard, and Texas Health and Human Services (HHS) Executive Commissioner Kyle Janek, all of whom had spoken at Governor Perry’s press conference last month when he announced that Texas National Guard troops would be deployed to the border. [Note: this article will focus on the testimony of these official state leaders. Part Two and Three, to follow shortly, will discuss testimony regarding health issues and comments from grassroots leaders.]
DPS Director McCraw began his testimony by bluntly stating, “the Texas-Mexico border is not secure.” Moreover, this was not a new problem, but had existed for thirty years, during which time the Mexican cartels had continuously evolved to exploit Texas borders.
Pickett asked McCraw what made the current situation a crisis, as opposed to past years. McCraw pointed out that the majority of the media’s attention was on the “unaccompanied alien children” (UACs), but those minors only accounted for twenty percent of those apprehended crossing the border. McCraw’s opinion that the UACs were not a direct security risk themselves, but they had put major burdens on the system and overwhelmed the Border Patrol.
The other eighty percent of the people, however, did present a security risk to Texans. Many of these people were connected to cartels, gangs, criminal activity, etc. In just the short period of April through June of this year, over 18,000 charges had been brought against criminal aliens, and sadly, this past Sunday a Border Patrol agent was murdered.
McCraw pointed out that this was not just a problem for Texans. “These criminal aliens most frequently prey upon the other aliens [who are coming across the border],” said McCraw. Recently, his agency rescued a group of women and girls who had been lured to come to America with the promise of domestic but had been forced into prostitution, one when she was just thirteen.
He then said that DPS’ goal was to “get out of the border security business,” which Pickett characterized as a “bold statement.” McCraw responded that DPS was doing what they needed to do, because Texans expected them to be proactive about safety. He mentioned, approvingly, how the Texas legislature had been proactive on the water, in air, along border, even when the budget has been tight.
Pickett then reminded McCraw of the budget increase DPS got during the 2013 legislative session, and asked how they were using the additional funds. McCraw said that their goal under Operation Strong Safety was to saturate the border with personnel to prevent Mexican cartels, gangs, criminal aliens, potential terrorists from entering or getting drugs or people across the border.
This was “not just a DPS goal, but a unified goal,” as they were working every day with local law enforcement, the federal drug enforcement agencies, the National Guard, etc. With $2,000 or more going to the coyotes for every person they helped cross the border, hundreds of millions of dollars were going to the cartels, and they were highly motivated to find solutions.
When asked about how they were directing their resources, McCraw said that the Rio Grande Valley sector was by far the most active, and that was where they would focus their efforts for now. He was optimistic about their ability to improve the situation at the border, describing how the surge that had begun June 18 had already had a positive impact. DPS agents, National Guard troops, and Texas Rangers were working twelve hour shifts and rotating throughout the state. They had received an authorization to spend an additional $12 to 13 million per week, and those funds were being prioritized for what would put more boots on the ground: overtime pay, fuel transportation costs, etc. (but not equipment).
Major General John Nichols testified next, and was asked to shed some light on the National Guard’s standard practices and how this new increased deployment might look.
The Texas National Guard, along with the Guard in ten other states, has been working closely with the Border Patrol and other state agencies for over fifteen years, providing operation and command control throughout the RGV sector. They also work with counter drug activities with DPS, the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, local law enforcement, and HHS (as part of Operation Lone Star). Nichols added that they currently have about 800 soldiers deployed overseas, and part of their customary duties in Texas included watching and preparing for inclement weather conditions like hurricanes or fire risk during droughts, as well as providing emergency relief services in the aftermath as needed.
When asked about what the Guard’s role would be supporting DPS as part of Operation Strong Safety, Nichols echoed his prior comments at last month’s press conference. Whenever they are working with a state agency, the Guard is “always in a supportive role,” he said. “Specifically, we’re being asked to deter and refer, [to act as a] force multiplier, allowing DPS to be more responsive, more mobile.”
Pickett then asked Nichols about what actions they would take when encountering people crossing the border illegally. Nichols replied that they were still in the process of working with DPS to define the procedures. He pointed out that the Guard does have the authority to detain, but, again, their rules of engagement right now are not to engage, even referring to them as “rules of nonengagement.”
Governor Perry’s instructions were to send 1,000 National Guard troops to support existing DPS operations at the border. Besides the additional troops, this deployment will involve helicopters, additional equipment training, first aid training, Spanish lessons. The training would also include how to handle any aggressive responses–“we will be armed, for self protection only…we’re going to be prepared to defend ourselves”–as well as training for the unique situation that is new for the current border crisis where people are voluntarily turning themselves into authorities,
Representative Phillip Cortez (D-San Antonio) asked about the expected length of this deployment. “What is the end game?” Normally, National Guard deployments in response to specific events, like natural disasters, are short term. This deployment to the border is currently open-ended. Nichols testified that they had been given no indication when it might end, but expected it would be at least six months. This is complicated by the fact that the Guard is not full-time, but comprised of part-time military service members who have civilian jobs. Nichols did say that when they did have a end date in mind, they wouldn’t “pull an Iraq” and announce it, “we’d end it when we’d end it.”
Representative Dan Flynn (R-Hopkins) voiced concerns about interference from volunteer groups along the border. “There’s a lot of well-meaning folks,” he said, who want to come down and help. Nichols replied that what they didn’t want was “good guy on good guy,” emphasizing that it was important to follow the rule of law, and that the Guard and DPS had been trusted by the Texas Legislature with the use of force and the opportunity to “take care of things.” Nichols’ view was that additional volunteer help was not needed, because the numbers of UACs crossing the border had dropped dramatically just from the surge that started June 18.
Breitbart Texas is continuing to follow this story. Stay tuned for more updates from the legislative committee hearings on these border issues.
Sarah Elizabeth Rumpf is a political and communications consultant living in Austin. You can follow her on Twitter at @rumpfshaker.