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Analysis: A Border Plan — and a Political One

Gov. Rick Perry said a plan to send National Guard troops to the state's border with Mexico was necessary because the federal government isn't doing enough there. The move could also address a political weak spot he discovered in his 2012 presidential run.

Gov. Rick Perry, flanked by State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, and Texas Adjutant General John Nichols, announces the deployment of National Guard troops to the Texas border on July 21, 2014.

Gov. Rick Perry can pursue a short-term strategy with the current immigration mess, blotting out his “don’t have a heart” comments from the last presidential race with a hardline “send in the troops” stance now that there are tens of thousands of migrant children at the gates.

The longer game — which is being left behind for the next governor and Legislature — is more complicated. But Perry doesn’t have to worry: That’s for the next set of officeholders to work out. His concerns are political ones.

This latest border excursion, together with efforts already in place, could cost up to $17 million per month, according to state officials. If the federal government picks up the tab for the National Guard and for other expenses, Texas won’t have a budget issue.

If the feds do not reimburse the state — or if they are slow about it — state lawmakers will have to tinker with the current budget. Between border security and other known expenses — Medicaid overruns being the largest — they could easily trip on the political problem of spending more than is allowed under statutory growth caps. That could mean casting a vote allowing the state to go beyond its self-imposed spending limits and risking the ire of voters who have tried hard to make public penny-pinching a political virtue. If you really want the services in question, it’s hard to vote against the spending that makes them possible.

This happens often, as when lawmakers vote against a state budget and then squawk when the state proposes closing government facilities in their districts to save money. Or promising to solve traffic problems and then suggesting cuts to “noncritical” areas like transportation — the governor alluded to that idea this week — in order to pay for an increased police presence on the state’s Mexican border.

The budget is just an example, and it’s not the biggest issue at hand. The throng of undocumented migrant children crossing the border is a multifaceted problem involving immigration law, the courts, public health, mass-housing issues, education and — maybe — police issues.

Nobody has explained to this point how the situation would be different today if National Guard troops and the state police had been dispatched two years ago, when the state first started whistling for assistance. And judging from the reactions of law enforcement officials on the border, the state’s response had all of the necessary elements but one: Nobody there dialed 911 to ask for state help. The duties of the expensive reinforcements are not yet clear.

The state’s action is designed to highlight the lack of federal attention to the border, and sending 1,000 National Guard troops got national coverage — some of it centered on the children on the border, some of it on Perry and his political aspirations, and much of it on the federal government’s inability to develop a functional immigration policy.

In six months, when Perry leaves office, the border problem will be off his desk. His successor and the rest of the state’s new and remaining officeholders will have to sort it all out without him.

The governor’s natural inclination might have been to emphasize the kids instead of the criminals. One of his allies jokes that this was the sort of moment that would ordinarily feature Perry in “disaster casual” — the garments you see him wearing when he is dealing with the aftermath of a hurricane, or a tornado. You’ve seen it: the khakis and the baseball caps, the governor and a bunch of people handling logistics, scrounging housing or places for the afflicted to sleep, slopping meals, all in the midst of the grateful victims of whatever trouble man or nature has doled out this time.

Instead, several days after visiting the border himself and having a face-to-face meeting with the president, Perry appeared in a dark suit at an Austin news  conference, flanked by law enforcement, military and state officials, and announced he was sending 1,000 troops to the border.

He might have made the same statement had he been standing at a migrant housing facility surrounded by Central American children, but they would not have had the same effect. Pictures matter.

“I will not stand idly by while our citizens are under assault and little children from Central America are detained in squalor,” Perry said. “We are too good a country for that to occur.”

This is not only about politics, but it has politics marbled through it.

The governor has said out loud, right in front of reporters with pens and paper, that he is thinking about a second run for president. He is getting regular briefings this time, the better to know what he’s talking about in forums and debates and other appearances. He has visited other states and countries that are of little professional interest to someone who is only interested in being a Texas governor.

And he has been working to compensate for political weak spots that he discovered in that first run — like his defense of the state law that gives in-state college tuition to undocumented immigrants who graduate from Texas high schools and who have lived in the state for a required period of time.

"If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they’ve been brought there by no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart," Perry said in a debate in September 2011.

He quickly apologized for how he expressed himself, but not for the idea behind it.

“Texas had a decision to make: Are we going to kick these young people to the curb and pay for their existence in our state through social programs or some other type of government dollars — up to and including incarceration?” Perry told The Washington Post more than a month later. “Or are we going to require that they pursue United States citizenship and pay full in-state tuition?”

This week, the governor disagreed with critics who say sending troops will militarize the border, saying the National Guard was just there to help with the humanitarian mission. But the candidate whose empathy cost him dearly in the last race didn’t take any risk with the impression he was leaving. The picture is important.

Disaster casual stayed in the closet. Perry was surrounded by uniforms and suits.

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Demographics Immigration Politics Border Rick Perry