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Unprecedented deployment has guardsmen feeling strain of border mission

By BRIAN M. ROSENTHAL | Houston Chronicle | Published: February 12, 2015

AUSTIN, Texas (Tribune News Service) — Six months into what was supposed to be a temporary assignment, Texas National Guard troops are starting to feel the strain of being away from home, complicating discussions about a potential extension of the state's border surge, officials said Wednesday.

Before being sent last summer by then-Gov. Rick Perry to fight crime on the southern border, the guard's longest previous deployment was about two weeks, Maj. Gen.John Nichols said at legislative hearing that revealed divisions between the state House and Senate on whether to fund an extension.

"We're high-intensity, short-duration people," Nichols told the House Budget Committee, describing the current deployment as "precedent-setting."

The guardsmen, who have left families and jobs on monthlong rotations, have stayed in motels during the deployment, Nichols said.

House Speaker Joe Straus cited the testimony later in the day, casting it as a reason to be cautious about extending the deployment past its scheduled March 31 end.

"Everyone's for border security, but we need to be efficient, effective and smart in how we implement these policies," Straus said in an interview with the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas-Austin.

His comments came a day after Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announced the Senate wants the troops to stay in place for at least another two months, and possibly another two years. He warned that drug cartels are gearing up to become more active if the guardsmen leave.

Any extension would have to win the approval of Gov. Greg Abbott, who has not yet endorsed or rejected the idea.

Abbott said Wednesday in San Antonio that he is working with the Legislature on a border security plan and would discuss it in his State of the State address next week.

It is costing about $2.5 million a month to continue the current deployment of 200 guardsmen, down from a high of nearly 1,000 shortly after Perry announced the mission last July.

The troops were dispatched to support state Department of Public Safety officers sent to the border in response to a flood of unaccompanied children entering the country.

The deployment, which initially was supposed stop at the end of 2014, but was extended in December by state leaders, has been seen as a success because the number of children and adults apprehended crossing the border has plummeted.

Parts 'highly inefficient'

Still, the director of the Department of Public Safety acknowledged at the Wednesday hearing that parts of the surge have been "highly inefficient."

"You look at the cost in terms of travel and the cost of the time it takes to get them down there, a day down and a day back," said Col. Steve McCraw said of the DPS officers, who, like the guardsmen, have been working 12-hour days and racking up overtime costs.

It would cost $283 million over the next two years just to keep the extra DPS officers in place, McCraw said.

The first draft of the House's two-year budget proposal included about $400 million for border security, much less than the $815 million in the Senate's starting-point plan. The state will have spent nearly $1 billion on border enforcement since 2008, nearly half of that in the two year budget period that ends Aug. 31.

The deployment of the National Guard has been much more controversial than the DPS effort because the guardsmen are more expensive and do not have the power to make arrests. Mostly, the troops have served as extra eyes aimed at locating undocumented immigrants and referring them to DPS or the U.S. Border Patrol.

On Wednesday, House budget panel Chairman John Otto said those duties could be accomplished at a much smaller cost by using more video cameras.

"These are men and women who have lives back home, and if we can find a way to more efficiently and effectively take what they were doing and replace it with technology at a much lower cost," (we should), said Otto-R-Dayton, joining a chorus of mostly Democrats expressing skepticism about the deployment.

As at previous hearings, the Democrats also complained that the deployment of the guard has "militarized" the border and has not been tied to any specific goals.

"I think the people in the state of Texas demand more than just throwing money at a situation without determining what the outcomes are," said Rep. Sylvester Turner, a Houston Democrat who serves as the budget panel's vice chairman.

Placed in danger

The hearing focused more than in the past on how the mission was affecting guardsmen, however.

Ray Lindner, the executive director of the National Guard Association of Texas, which represents the interests of guardsmen, said in an interview afterward that the border deployment has been unlike any previous. In particular, the mission to fight crime has been more dangerous than the guard's usual duties, which often involve responding to natural disasters, Lindner said.

"Anytime you have a family member that's placed in danger, then there's going to be an impact on the family," Lindner said. "There's a lot more worry, there's a lot more concern, and they're just ready to get them home."

At the Capitol, Otto asked Nichols whether another extension in the deployment would hurt the morale of the guardsmen.

The general did not hesitate.

"Yes sir," he said, adding that the back and forth of the legislative debate has been hard on guardsmen.

"We're going to serve," he said, "but what I would ask humbly would be predictability."

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