When Texas Gov. Rick Perry this week announced he was sending 1,000 National Guard troops to his state's border with Mexico to deal with the child-migrant crisis, critics — including the White House — dismissed it as a political stunt.
Josh Earnest, the White House spokesman, termed it a "symbolic" move intended to "generate headlines" and said that if Perry was serious about stemming the flow of migrants at the border, he'd support comprehensive immigration reform in Congress.
And others argued that it sent an unnecessarily fearsome message to the arriving migrants, with uniformed soldiers standing guard on the border, guns in hand. "So, they're fleeing men and women with guns in Central America, and we're going to receive them with men and women with guns here," said Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois. "They're children. They're not invading."
Somewhere along the line, however, the administration began to view the Guard as more than a prop. A day after Earnest's remarks, President Obama dispatched a team to the border to evaluate whether added troops could, in fact, help ease the strain on overtaxed federal resources dealing with the stream of unaccompanied minors traveling from Central America.
Yet even if the White House and Republicans agree that Guard troops should be sent to the border, there's little consensus on what exactly they'd be empowered to do.
There's precedent for such a move. In 2006, the Bush administration mobilized the Guard to help with security efforts while 6,000 new Border Patrol agents were brought online. Former Bush officials say the troops played a valuable role during their two-year deployment.
"Clearly if they are properly deployed as part of a strategy, they can be very helpful," said Jayson Ahern, who served as deputy and then acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection from 2007 to 2009. "What's not helpful is uncoordinated deployments that don't have a good plan and that aren't well thought-out."
The key in that case, Ahern said, was that it was the federal government, through the Department of Homeland Security and the Pentagon, mobilizing the Guard, not individual states. The troops were "properly planned, sanctioned, and under supervision and the direction of the Border Patrol," he said. "From a training standpoint, there's very strict limitations on what the Guard can and cannot do, particularly around people."
Guard troops can't step in the shoes of federal officers to enforce immigration policy, they can't conduct law-enforcement activities, and only in rare cases can they make arrests. "If they, solely, stopped and detained someone, I think that would be a stretch of their authority," Ahern said.
Perry's office seems to get that. Travis Considine, a Perry spokesman, said the Texas troops aren't being sent to deal with the child-migrant crisis at all, but to help combat "crime and cartel activity that is resulting from our unsecured border." The Guard, he said, "will be working side-by-side with law enforcement, who can detain individuals and refer them to the appropriate federal authorities."
"Criminals," he added, "are taking advantage of the fact that the Border Patrol is being diverted from the law-enforcement duties to help with humanitarian aid."
The Texas Guard will remain under Perry's direction in what appears to be the kind of the uncoordinated response that Ahern says should be avoided. At the same time, Obama's team, comprised of officials from DHS and the Defense Department, will determine whether the administration needs to mobilize the Guard. And if it does, the troops are expected to serve much of the same role they served in 2006-07, backing up the Border Patrol and performing administrative tasks.
Deploying the Guard to "assist with the humanitarian care and needs" of children traveling without a parent is a component of a House Republican working group's recommendations to address the crisis.
Led by Rep. Kay Granger of Texas, the working group doesn't have an estimate on the number of troops it would deploy. It'd be a short-term assignment, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida said Thursday, to relieve a "stretched-thin" Border Patrol.
When an unaccompanied minor comes forward — or is apprehended — the Border Patrol agent takes the child to the nearest station. Then, his or her age is determined. An immigration background check is performed. The child's home consulate is notified, a screening is performed, a file is created, removal proceedings begin, and a bed is requested from the Office of Refugee Resettlement, said Michael Reilly, a Border Patrol assistant chief.
And the time it takes may vary.
"As an agent, you can be very savvy at [the] process and it won't take you as long, where some agents aren't computer savvy," Reilly said.
The House GOP's idea to send in the National Guard is aimed at alleviating administrative stress for Border Patrol agents.
"The reality is that the Border Patrol is doing all these administrative things dealing with these kids, so it's not allowing them to be out there doing their job," Diaz-Balart said. "So we use the National Guard in order to then allow the Border Patrol to do what they're supposed to do."
Some members say that although they worry a deployment would "militarize" the border, they can see benefits in the short term. "So they come in and provide the support like they've always done in the past, and they provide humanitarian care," said Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas. "For those two specific purposes, they can come in."
"Frankly, they're not trained for this particular mission," added Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla. "I think they can, on the short term, do some things to help just because there's such a manpower strain. But long-term, I don't like the idea of militarizing the border, and I don't think that's what the National Guard is for."
Committing the Guard to the border could come with a political risk, reinforcing in the public's mind that the migrant crisis stems from inadequate security at the border rather than from minors fleeing Central America's violence. A CNN poll released Thursday underscored that risk, showing that Americans increasingly view border security as the most important aspect of the immigration debate.
Cost is also certain to be an issue. Perry has already been criticized in Texas for sending the troops on a mission that is estimated to cost the state $12 million a month. The governor has said that he expects to be reimbursed by DHS, but Ahern said that isn't likely because Perry's actions weren't part of a greater federal response.
Obama's $3.7 billion funding request is already being whittled down by the Senate and the House — and it originally called for just $1.1 billion to be routed to an already-strained DHS, which must cover the costs of any Guard deployment by the federal government.
Back from a three-day fundraising tour on the West Coast, Obama is scheduled Friday to meet with leaders of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador to discuss further steps the administration can take to deal with the migrant crisis.