Gov. Rick Perry speaks during a July 21 news conference in Austin, Texas. (Eric Gay / AP)
MCALLEN, TEXAS — Most of the 1,000 National Guard troops headed to the Texas-Mexico border will take up observational positions and detain people only if they interfere with their mission, a top general over the deployment said Tuesday.
Texas Adjutant General John Nichols said the troops will help deter illicit traffic while U.S. Border Patrol agents deal with a record spike of unaccompanied minors entering the country. The Texas National Guard troops are headed to border on the orders of Republican Gov. Rick Perry, who has been a chief critic of the White House response to the crisis and is considering another run for president in 2016.
Nichols said troops will be armed for their safety, but when asked if their weapons would be loaded would say only that ammunition would be in magazines.
“That’s about as far as I want to go because if the cartel folks understand what we can and can’t do then they may take advantage of that,” Nichols told The Associated Press.
Nichols said troops will deploy to the Rio Grande Valley in the next few weeks and that no end date for the operation has been set.
The deployment will cost Texas an estimated $12 million a month — on top of an extra $1.3 million a week the state has recently been giving its Department of Public Safety to ramp up operations along the border.
Since October, more than 57,000 unaccompanied children and teenagers have entered the U.S. illegally — more than double compared with the same period a year earlier. Most have been from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, where rampant gang violence and intense poverty have driven tens of thousands of people outside their borders.
More than 3,000 Border Patrol agents currently work in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, and Perry had repeatedly asked President Obama to send the National Guard to the border amid the influx.
Perry’s order has drawn backlash from Democrats and even some local sheriffs and police chiefs in counties along the Texas border. They call the deployment an ill-conceived militarization and have questioned assertions by Perry and other Republicans who say criminals are exploiting the surge while the Border Patrol is overwhelmed taking in children.
The new deployment comes two years after the federal Government Accountability Office questioned the impact of the last two times that National Guard troops were sent to the border. A 2012 report found the State Department and Defense Department “expressing concerns about the perception of a militarized border with Mexico.”
President George W. Bush added 6,000 National Guard troops to the southwest border in 2006 and Obama ordered a new surge of 1,200 in 2010. Those missions ended with Defense Department officials worrying that a strategy on the border was more ad hoc than comprehensive, according to the federal report.
Weber reported from Austin.