By Mike Ward and Peggy Fikac
San Antonio Express-News
AUSTIN — National Guard troops beginning a controversial deployment to the Rio Grande Valley to help deal with a flood of undocumented immigrants will stow their combat gear and take up Spanish lessons, state officials said Tuesday as questions continued to swirl about whether the additional boots on the ground even were needed.
The Guard troops will be armed for self-defense and trained to avoid confrontation with border crossers as they help back up federal border agents and hundreds of Department of Public Safety troopers, Texas Rangers, DPS investigators and game wardens who arrived weeks ago.
Meanwhile, responding to reports that some of the immigrants were infected with contagious diseases, Kyle Janek, executive commissioner of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, said state health officials were working closely with federal officials to vaccinate all immigrant children coming across the border.
All of the immigrants are being given health screenings, he added, noting most of the costs of the human services programs are being borne so far by the federal government.
In separate public hearings Tuesday, members of the state Legislative Budget Board and the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee expressed continued support for the deployment of state troopers and National Guard troops to the Mexican border operation, a move that Gov. Rick Perry, in a letter to Comptroller Susan Combs, revealed could cost up to $75 million if the deployment continues through the end of the year.
At the same time, Texans who testified at the hearing were split on whether the deployment was needed or whether it was a waste of money. Several called for a special session of the Legislature to address the issue.
"The Rio Grande Valley right now is ground zero for drug and human trafficking for the nation. Make no mistake," Steve McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, told the House panel.
So far this year, 225,668 apprehensions were logged along the Texas border, compared with 242,669 in 2013, McCraw said. Among the apprehensions in recent weeks, he said, were more than 60 members of the violent Salvadoran drug gang MS-13.
Perry ordered the deployment of up to 1,000 National Guard troops to the border region last month, saying they will not actively arrest crime suspects or patrol the border, but will provide tactical support to Border Patrol and law enforcement agencies in the area.
While state officials wouldn't discuss specific personnel numbers about the National Guard deployment, McCraw and Texas' adjutant general, Maj. Gen. John Nichols, said Guard troops have been told to "avoid confrontation" in their border mission, though they will be armed for self-defense.
He and other officials said the Guard will staff helicopters for surveillance, will provide First Aid and will deploy sensor equipment to detect border crossings.
Some also are being trained in Spanish as a part of the deployment, Nichols said.
"We're asking you to be in a law enforcement role," state Rep. Joe Pickett, an El Paso Democrat who chairs the House committee, told Nichols. "I feel for you. It's dangerous."
Citing the cost, committee members quizzed McCraw and Nichols on how long the surge will last. Both said that will be up to state leaders.
"There is no end date," Nichols told the committee, noting the Guard troops usually are deployed in state emergencies for periods that last just two or three weeks, not months. "This is a first ever for us and the state of Texas."
In recent months, a flood of undocumented immigrants — tens of thousands of them unaccompanied children — have crossed into Texas from Mexico, precipitating a crisis for law enforcement, federal officials and social-services officials.
Mike Morrisey, Perry's deputy chief of staff and senior adviser, told the Legislative Budget Board that the governor used his executive authority to free $38 million from a currently unused appropriation for emergency radio infrastructure, most of it to pay for the early stages of the Guard deployment and $7 million to cover DPS costs.
He said Perry earlier moved $3.5 million in criminal justice grants into the surge.
"Quite frankly, I think it sets a bad precedent," state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, told the budget board as he and other lawmakers questioned Perry's move. "What makes this situation so unique that down the road the next governor, the governor after that, can't declare almost any situation an emergency?"
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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