*Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.
Gov. Rick Perry, leaping again into the national spotlight on illegal immigration, announced Monday he is sending up to 1,000 National Guard troops to the Texas-Mexico border, where an influx of young Central Americans has overwhelmed the federal government.
Democrats blasted the decision as a political stunt by a governor with presidential ambitions. But Perry, who has the power to call up Guard troops to deal with a broad variety of crises, said Texas had to act because the federal government has offered nothing but “lip service and empty promises” while the border is overrun with illegal activity.
“I will not stand idly by while our citizens are under assault and little children from Central America are detained in squalor,” Perry told a packed press conference at the Texas Capitol. “We are too good a country for that to occur.”
Monday’s announcement marked the second time this month that Perry, who is considering another run for the White House in 2016, has thrust himself into the center of national debate about the crisis along border. He met with President Obama in Dallas on July 9, in part, to press his demands that the feds send — and pay for — a National Guard deployment.
Absent a federal activation, Perry said he acted on his own, meaning that Texans will pick up the $12-million-a-month tab authorities say the deployment will cost. The governor and other Republican elected officials said they would ask the federal government to pay for the mobilization.
The Guard will not act in a primary law enforcement role but rather as a “force multiplier” under “Operation Strong Safety,” the border surge effort being led by the Texas Department of Public Safety and other state police, Perry said.
That ongoing state police operation is estimated to cost about $5 million a month, so Texas could be spending $17 million or more per month for border security when the operation is in full swing. House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, said the Legislature will mull how to pay for the increased border presence as costs continue to escalate.
Adjutant General John Nichols, head of the Texas Military Forces, said he expected 1,000 troops to be mobilized within a month. The National Guard will also provide helicopters that will offer nighttime surveillance to law enforcement, he said.
“Technically speaking, if we were asked to we could detain people but we’re not planning on that,” said Nichols, who joined Perry at the press conference. “We’re planning on referring and deterring — so deterring them with physical presence and referring any people that we see that we think are illegal immigrants to DPS.”
Nichols said most of the soldiers are trained in life-saving techniques and will be prepared to deal with unaccompanied minors from Central America. The young immigrants generally turn themselves in to authorities and are later released pending adjudication in the courts, which sometimes takes years.
“We think that they will come to us and say please take us to a Border Patrol station,” Nichols said. “We’re going to be prepared to have water there, to render aid if they need it.”
He said he expected to be in communication with law enforcement to help process the immigrants.
The decision to activate the National Guard was generally well received among Republicans. Attorney General Greg Abbott, the Republican candidate for governor, applauded Perry’s “decisive action.”
State Sen. Dan Patrick of Houston, the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor, released a statement supporting the decision before it was announced.
“More manpower and more resources are needed. It’s time to mobilize the National Guard,” Patrick said. “This should be done by President Obama, but if he refuses, and Governor Perry decides to act, I fully support that decision.”
State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, said Republicans were using the border crisis to appeal to their base voters — not to solve the problem.
“It’s the wrong message and it is not needed. We do not need to militarize the border,” he said. “We have families and kids that are coming across that are unarmed.”
Likewise, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, said the state should focus on providing humanitarian relief, not more law enforcement.
"We should be sending the Red Cross to the border, not the National Guard," Castro told The Texas Tribune in a text message. "These children are not trying to evade Border Patrol and there's no reason to confront them with soldiers."
State Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth, the Democratic candidate for governor, agreed more law enforcement is needed along the border, and she pointed the finger at Washington leaders who have failed to “live up to their responsibility.”
But she said Perry should call the Legislature into a special session to provide more money to hire deputy sheriffs instead of activating the National Guard.
Perry ignored a question at the end of the press conference about whether a special session might be needed, but earlier he blasted those who call the deployment a “militarization” of the Texas-Mexico border. He said the National Guard is made up of Texans from all walks of life — many of whom have served along the border in humanitarian missions.
“This idea that somehow or another there is a militarization going on is frankly a little offensive to the folks at the National Guard who travel to the border on a regular basis to help,” Perry said. “This is about border security.”