AUSTIN, Texas — Texas on Friday became the first state to deploy National Guard troops to the southern border of the United States after President Donald Trump announced this week that he would send the military there.
The mobilization began shortly after 7 p.m. Friday at the Armed Forces Reserve Center in Austin, as two light-utility Lakota helicopters carrying a total of four service members lifted off from the taxiway and flew south past a fading sun.
Brig. Gen. Tracy Norris, commander of the Texas Army National Guard, said the deployment would begin meeting “the priorities of the governor and the president in securing our border.” In addition to troops, the Guard said it would send ground surveillance vehicles and light and medium aircraft.
The announcement in Austin came the same day the Republican governor of Arizona, Doug Ducey, said about 150 members of the National Guard in his state would deploy next week to the border. Other governors have weighed in as well, with their support or criticism of the plan falling along party lines. The Republican governor of New Mexico, Susana Martinez, vowed to send troops soon, while the Democratic governor of Montana, Steve Bullock, refused.
Defense Secretary James Mattis on Friday signed orders authorizing funding for up to 4,000 National Guard troops for the operation through Sept. 30, under the “command and control of their respective governors.”
National Guard troops have been deploying to the southern border for decades after orders by presidents and governors from both parties. In 2010, the Democratic governor of New Mexico at the time, Bill Richardson, ordered a few dozen troops to his state’s border with Mexico after the killing of an Arizona rancher.
But Trump’s mobilization, which could deploy thousands of troops, has reignited concerns in Texas and elsewhere about the militarization of border communities and has angered local officials and lawmakers who say that the troops are not needed and that they give the false impression that their cities are under siege.
“It sounds to me more like political rhetoric than something that is actually needed on our border,” said Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-Texas, whose district includes the border city of McAllen. “For example, McAllen is at a 32-year low in crime. We’re at a 46-year low in illegal entries. It’s the wildest thing in the world for us to hear that they want to bring National Guard troops to the border region.”
Trump and federal officials said the troops were needed to help the U.S. Border Patrol address what Trump said was a growing threat of unauthorized immigrants, drugs and crime from Central America.
Norris on Friday said that the troops would be armed for self-defense “depending on the mission set,” and that it was “premature right now to know what the cost will be” of the overall operation.
The deployment is a federal initiative that will be managed by the state, a hybrid known as Title 32. In that capacity, a governor retains control of the National Guard troops but the federal government finances the operation.
Norris said that in addition to the 250 troops being deployed in the coming days, an unknown number of others would likely be called up as part of a “follow-on phase.”
The response from Texas officials, coming just three days after Trump called for militarizing the border, was no surprise. Republican leaders in Texas have been outspoken in condemning cartel-related crime, drugs, violence and human smuggling on the border. In fact, they had moved to put the National Guard on the border years ago.
Even as Trump announced his mobilization this week, the Texas National Guard already had about 100 troops at the border, as part of a state border-security operation that began in 2014. Texas officials dispatched 1,000 National Guard troops to the border because they said drug cartels were taking advantage of the federal government’s focus on the tens of thousands of Central Americans flooding the border at the time.
The deployment was meant to “help combat the brutal Mexican drug cartels that are preying upon our communities,” Rick Perry, then the governor, said in 2014.
The 2014 deployment was supposed to end the following year, but the mobilization was extended by Perry’s successor, Greg Abbott. State lawmakers said last year that the cost for the National Guard deployment and Texas Military Forces expenses on the border was nearly $63 million.
The 100 National Guard troops who have been at the border play a supporting role to state and federal law enforcement, acting, as state officials describe it, as a “force multiplier.”
“We stand ready to support the needs of the state and the nation at the request of the governor or the president,” Lt. Col. Travis Walters, a spokesman for the Texas Military Department, the agency that oversees the state’s National Guard branches, said in a statement.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.