AUSTIN, Texas — Illegal crossings along the Rio Grande have slowed dramatically since an overwhelming surge of immigrants had state and federal agents scrambling to secure the border earlier this year. Texas leaders still don't want their ground troops to leave just yet.
As the federal government is downsizing its presence on Texas' southern border, key state officials are proposing that when about 1,000 National Guard troops go home in the spring they be replaced with state troopers who would remain on duty until August.
The plan calls for spending an extra $86 million to extend a border security mission that Gov. Rick Perry ordered in June as unaccompanied immigrant children crossed into the state in record numbers. While local law enforcement agencies say the extra resources are no longer needed, outgoing Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst defended the strategy.
"The (law enforcement) surge is working," he said Wednesday. "It's important that we keep it working."
During the summer, U.S. Border Patrol sent agents from other stations to South Texas to help deal with the influx of Central American immigrants. But Border Patrol officials have said most of those agents have since returned to their original stations as the number of illegal crossings fell.
"While the rate of unaccompanied children apprehended in the Rio Grande Valley appears to be moving downward compared to earlier this year, we continue to prepare for any change in current conditions," the Border Patrol said in a statement.
The number of unaccompanied minors — which accounted for a large portion of the increased border crossings over the summer — apprehended in South Texas dropped by 42 percent in October 2014 compared to October 2013. And Texas Department of Public Safety statistics using Border Patrol data show that during the first week of Operation Strong Safety in late June, 6,606 people were apprehended in the area where Texas forces were deployed. That number dropped to 1,521 in the week ended Nov. 1.
Dewhurst said Wednesday that a mix of additional state troopers and technology will replace the guardsmen that deployed to the Rio Grande Valley this summer.
Pulling the National Guard off the border is, in part, a financial consideration. Some in the Legislature have suggested the total monthly cost are upward of $18 million, and Dewhurst said Wednesday that one issue with extending the deployment is that guardsmen are "more expensive." A letter from Perry's office dated Monday indicates that $17.5 million — about 20 percent of the new proposed spending — will go toward the National Guard.
The bulk of the rest is earmarked for the Department of Public Safety. Dewhurst said the state is prepared to send up to 1,000 state troopers.
Dewhurst and Perry are leaving office in January. Both their successors and a new Legislature could have different preferences on how much to spend and where, and could scrap this plan.
The proposal — which is subject to approval by a legislative budget panel next month — has so far generated no vocal Republican opposition. Gov.-elect Greg Abbott has vowed to send an additional 500 state troopers to the border, and the outline of the new spending plan could help him reach that goal.
The funding for the extension of the operation will come from bond service funds and disaster funds, among other sources.
Opponents of the surge voiced their concerns about the increase in state forces along the border.
"The people crossing the border were not terrorists," Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia said. With "the continuation of law enforcement officers, I don't have a problem. But I don't believe we ever needed the National Guard; they are not trained in law enforcement."
Willacy County Sheriff Larry Spence said he'd like to see funding go to sheriffs' departments. He said he'd like to replace vehicles and hire more deputies.
"Here," he said, "most ranchers they don't trust anyone (on their property) other than the sheriff."
Llorca reported from El Paso.