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Border security or political stunt? Ricketts, critics discuss Nebraska state troopers in Texas

Will sending 6% of the Nebraska State Patrol to Texas be costly to taxpayers?
Posted at 5:14 PM, Jun 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-29 17:39:13-04

LINCOLN, Neb. (KMTV) — This week and next, nearly six percent of Nebraska’s state troopers will patrol the Texas countryside instead of ours. The reason: Gov. Pete Ricketts sent 25 troopers to help with a “crisis at the border.”

Ricketts is one of four Republican governors who answered Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s request for law enforcement from other states. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds is sending 25 to 30 troopers, too.

3 News Now Investigators spoke with Ricketts about his decision to send troopers, and with critics who say the move is more political than practical. We also explored what the decision might cost taxpayers.

Ricketts says he sees a need to send help in the number of illegal border crossings from Mexico, which are up sharply after 2020’s pandemic-fueled drop. They started climbing in October and haven’t stopped.

Nebraska’s troopers, including several who speak Spanish and volunteered to go, are headed to the Del Rio area of Texas for 14 to 16 days. Ricketts says they will boost security along the border.

He says he understands that the Nebraskans are limited to enforcing Texas law. Only federal police agencies like Customs and Border Patrol enforce federal law on immigration.

“I think that this is such a big border security situation, and they’ve got so many people coming across the border illegally they’re looking for help with just that regular law enforcement action that they’ve got the authority to do,” Ricketts said. “And that’s ... what our state troopers can help with.”

Ricketts’ decision to send troopers is popular politically, particularly among Nebraska Republicans. Both announced GOP candidates for governor, Charles Herbster and Jim Pillen, said they support it.

But it does not sit well with some Nebraskans, including South Omaha Latino advocate Ben Salazar, an Army veteran who spends much of his time helping immigrants and immigrant families.

“Even the most ardent supporter of Donald Trump or Governor Ricketts would say, 'Why?'” Salazar said. “What purpose, what goal are they going to achieve in their less than a month tenure down at the border? It makes no sense. But if he’s doing it, if the governor is enacting this policy, then he thinks it makes sense to him politically. … It’s a farce. It’s a complete farce.”

University of Nebraska at Omaha political science professor Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado says the problems at the southern border are real.

He says they represent a humanitarian crisis and a potential crisis of national security, one that politicians continue to ignore because it’s difficult politically to solve.

RELATED: Nebraska governor declines to help house migrant children; immigrant advocates respond

This year-to-date, the number of illegal border crossings are the highest since at least the early 2000s. Increasingly, they look more like the era before Sept. 11, 2001.

Annual border apprehensions were higher back then, more than 1.5 million a year.

“What we’re seeing now obviously is an increase,” Benjamin-Alvarado said. “The estimates are that we will see anything between 750,000 and 900,000 apprehensions. But it’s not nearly as dramatic as people paint it to be. And it owes largely to the fact that we’ve not ever fixed our immigration system.”

Increased crossings have spurred new border visits from Vice President Kamala Harris and former President Donald Trump, who will visit the Texas-Mexico border while the Nebraskans are there.

Why are they so interested?

Professor James Henson, who runs the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, says border security remains potent politically. He says politics may be motivating GOP alarm about the border.

His group polls Texas voters, and border security remained their top concern, even during a pandemic year in which Texas' entire electrical system and power grid failed.

“Nothing really galvanizes Republican voters in Texas like the issues of immigration and border security,” Henson said.

Texas’ governor is in for a re-election fight, whether within his own party or in a general election. He and the other GOP governors might be using the issue as a binding agent for Republican voters, he said.

Ricketts, Abbott and Reynolds also have a history together in leadership roles for the Republican Governors Association, which has as its stated aim electing more GOP governors.

Another of the governors sending help is Florida’s Ron DeSantis, an early frontrunner for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination. He’s sending 50 troopers. Idaho is sending help, too.

“There’s a very symbolic value, I would guess, to your governor as well as to the Texas governor, in pitching in in this effort, that probably doesn’t have very much to do with the actual product on the ground,” Henson said.

A spokesman for Customs and Border Patrol declined to comment about whether they need the additional law enforcement help along the Texas border.

He says the Border Patrol will respond to calls about illegal border crossings from state and local law enforcement working nearby, including out-of-state officers.

The Texas Governor’s Office referred questions to the Texas Department of Public Safety, which declined to say how the Nebraska officers would be used. They said Texas is grateful for the help.

RELATED: Texas governor plans to use state funds, crowdsourcing to build border wall

Ricketts and the Nebraska State Patrol say they don’t yet have an estimate of how much the deployment might cost. Nor could they say whether Texas would reimburse Nebraska taxpayers for responding.

The state says Nebraska taxpayers were reimbursed both times they deployed 11 troopers each to help with security for the Dakota Access pipeline during 2016 protests in North Dakota.

Nebraska is still awaiting reimbursement from Minnesota for sending 23 troopers to protect state buildings during the Derek Chauvin trial in the Twin Cities.

Nebraska sought similar help from other states in 2012, when responding to wildfires in western Nebraska. They say they reimbursed the other states.

In recent days, 3 News Now requested public records to estimate the costs on our own. We found salary and benefit costs that will easily eclipse $80,000.

Food, lodging and travel expenses will likely push that number north of $100,000. And that’s if the group works no overtime, which would push the costs much higher.

“These things take time to work out, so we’re still working through all those details,” Ricketts said.

The Patrol says it should need no overtime to cover law enforcement shifts in Nebraska while the troopers are gone. Salazar says Nebraskans will pay – one way or another.

“I think when we stand here and you look around, these are the people they are trying to stop at the border,” he said, pointing to people shopping and working along South 24th Street.

“These are the same folks. This is the same family of people. It’s a family that I’m a member of.”

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