Editor’s note: This article was first published in the Nebraska Examiner.

LINCOLN — Nebraskans are paying to send their public servants to the U.S. border with Mexico for the second time in two months. This time, the state is using federal COVID-19 recovery funds, money some lawmakers say should be spent in the state.

Gov. Jim Pillen, fresh off sending 10 Nebraska state troopers to Texas for law enforcement along the border, announced last week that he would also deploy more than 60 Nebraska Army National Guard members to the Lone Star State for border work.

Pillen, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and other Republican governors who answered Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s call for help agreed not to bill Texas, a rare step for any state requesting aid through the multi-state disaster-response system.

Who foots the bill?

Instead, Nebraska taxpayers will pay for the two border trips out of different fiscal pockets.

The Nebraska State Patrol’s July trip will cost state taxpayers at least $128,000 from the Patrol’s general fund budget, early state estimates show. Nebraska sent drone pilots for two weeks as an eye in the sky, watching movement near the border.

The Guard’s August trip to monitor sections of the border could cost up to about $2 million, the Guard said. The state will cover a month of costs and then refill the Guard’s coffers with funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, Pillen’s office said.

Nebraska and other states are taking advantage of flexibility Congress provided in using federal recovery funds set aside to stabilize state and local governments in the wake of COVID-19. The state received $1.04 billion in these State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds.

Iowa is covering its costs using pandemic funds, too. Texas covered $1 billion in new border security spending by shifting state funds allocated to public health and safety agencies and backfilling with federal dollars, the Texas Tribune reported.

A U.S. Treasury Department spokeswoman said this week she believes that states spending federal relief funds this way are using a section of the law allowing the funds to cover a loss of revenue that typically pays for a regular function of state government.

‘Shell games’

State Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue, a Democrat who ran against Pillen for governor in 2022 and advocates for putting the state government’s fiscal house in order, called on State Auditor Mike Foley to dig into how pandemic relief funds are being used.

She worries about the state playing “shell games” with the funds for a political purpose.

“I think of all the small businesses and workforce shortages and all the things we could spend this money on,” Blood said. “Why would we tap these resources to help another state when we have all these people we could help in Nebraska?”

State Sen. Rob Clements of Elmwood, a Republican who chairs the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee and a frequent defender of the Pillen administration, said using federal funds to cover a federal responsibility should not be controversial.

“The state’s total ARPA funding was more than $1 billion,” Clements said. “Two million out of that total is a very small number. I’m glad to see federal dollars being used to support a federal problem. … I think it was a good choice of funding.”

Pillen’s reasons

Pillen visited Texas with other Republican governors in May and has described both deployments as needed. He, like Abbott, argues the federal government has not done enough to secure the border from unauthorized crossings by migrants.

Immigrants wait overnight next to the U.S.-Mexico border fence to seek asylum in the United States on January 7, 2023, as viewed from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

Pillen, in a statement, said he supports using federal funds for this purpose, saying “we must do everything we can to protect them, especially from fentanyl and other dangerous drugs smuggled into this country by drug traffickers.”

Nebraskans deployed to the border have described the situation as a serious humanitarian crisis with real impacts on people, neighborhoods, businesses and criminal justice. Pillen has said every state deals with the impacts of an unsecured border.

Risks to some Nebraskans

Nebraskans of Latino heritage have described the negative personal impacts of the increased political focus on illegal border crossings and immigration, including discrimination and threats, no matter how long they’ve lived here.

Some say the state is taking a risk by embracing Abbott while he is under scrutiny for placing barriers in the middle of the Rio Grande River that have ensnared migrants, risking lives. Recent stories highlighted a barrier with saw blades between floats.

Rebecca Gonzales, a Lincoln advocate for Nebraska Latinos, expressed disappointment in Pillen using pandemic dollars along the border. She considers the effort a political ploy and an ineffective “drop in the bucket” when the federal government already spends more than $17.5 billion on customs and border enforcement.

“I don’t think that’s what that money was meant for,” Gonzales said of the pandemic relief funds. “I’d like to see that money go to mental health, helping our kids who suffered so much during that time, getting them back on track.”

Gonzales said she and a family member recently returned from a trip to the border and said she did not see a situation that matched the fever pitch of what Nebraska politicians have described.

Rhetoric and reality

Nebraska may be home to more than 60,000 undocumented workers, based on academic estimates of the state-by-state impact. Immigrant and refugee labor contribute more than 8% of the state’s economic output, an OpenSky Policy Institute study indicated.

Pillen has hardened his immigration rhetoric since 2022, when he faced criticism during the contested Republican primary for governor about his Columbus-based hog operation and whether he properly screened his employees for legal status. He has said he did.

Illegal border crossings, after being high for months, dropped in June to their lowest level since February 2021, with 99,545 law enforcement encounters, according to federal statistics. They increased again in July by 30%, to 130,000.

GOP governors have not sent border help to California, Arizona or New Mexico under the Biden administration. Those states’ Democratic governors have not requested help from other states.

Republican Gov. Abbott of Texas has requested help more often since President Joe Biden took office. The Defense Department deployed about 1,500 troops for a 90-day deployment to the border in May, The Hill reported.

Aaron Sanderford has tackled various news roles in his 20-plus year career. He has reported on politics, crime, courts, government and business for the Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal-Star.

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