Gov. Rick Perry is deploying up to 1,000 National Guard troops to the Texas-Mexico border over the next month to combat what he said Monday were criminals exploiting a surge of children pouring into the U.S. illegally.
Perry, a vocal critic of the White House's response to the border crisis who is himself mulling a second presidential run, said the state has a responsibility to act after "lip service and empty promises" from Washington.
"I will not stand idly by while our citizens are under assault and little children from Central America are detained in squalor," the governor said.
The deployment of National Guard troops, which may act in a law enforcement capacity under state authority, will cost Texas an estimated $12 million per month. They will simply be "referring and deterring" immigrants and not detaining people, Texas Adjutant General John Nichols said. But he added that the National Guard could take people into custody if need be.
"We think they'll come to us and say, 'Please take us to a Border Patrol station," Nichols said.
Messages seeking comment were left with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Perry bristled at suggestions from some Democratic state lawmakers and business groups that his move means Texas is militarizing is southern border.
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Still, Cameron County Sheriff Omar Lucio said he didn't know if troops would be coming to his part of the border and questioned what good they would do if they did.
"Those people are trained for warfare, not for law enforcement," said Lucio, whose county includes Brownsville. "I think the money would be better spent if they would give it to the local law enforcement that is close to the border."
More than 3,000 Border Patrol agents currently work in Texas' Rio Grande Valley, but Perry had repeatedly asked President Barack Obama to send the National Guard to the border amid an influx of immigrants.
Since October, more than 57,000 unaccompanied children and teenagers have entered the U.S. illegally -- more than double compared to the same period a year earlier. Most have been from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, where rampant gang violence and intense poverty have driven tens of thousands of people outside their borders.
Obama administration officials have said that the flood has slowed in recent weeks, with Border Patrol agents in the Rio Grande Valley finding fewer than 500 children last week compared to as many as 2,000 a week last month.
Perry, though, said that, for years, the federal government failed to secure the border and suggested that criminal gangs could be exploiting the recent surge to make things worse. He said more than 200,000 criminals in the country illegally had been booked into Texas jails since 2008, many for drug-related offenses but also for homicides and sexual assaults.
As governor, Perry can deploy National Guard troops, but that means Texas has to pay for it. An order by Obama would have meant Washington paid. Still, Perry and other top Texas conservatives said they expect the federal government to eventually reimburse the state.
"Texans are willing to put the boots on the ground, but we expect Washington to foot the bill," said Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican who is favored to replace Perry in November.
Perry isn't seeking re-election but hasn't ruled out a 2016 presidential campaign after his short-lived 2012 run -- and he's used the immigration issue to repeatedly hammer Obama for what he called inaction.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday that Perry wanted to "make a symbolic statement to the people of Central America that the border is closed."
"He thinks that the best way to do that is to send 1,000 National Guard troops to the border," Earnest said. "It seems to me that a much more powerful symbol would be the bipartisan passage of legislation that would actually make a historic investment in border security and send an additional 20,000 personnel to the border."
That refers to the U.S. Senate's passage of comprehensive immigration reform that stalled in the House. Earnest also said the White House hasn't received the kind of "formal communication" from Perry's office that usually accompanies such deployments.
On Monday night, Hidalgo County Sheriff Eddie Guerra said the money being spent for the National Guard troops could be spent more wisely. He said he respected the troops but felt the money could be used to up the amount of police and deputies, along with border patrol agents.
"The problem you have bringing the national guard is it's gonna send the message that we are the Wild Wild West, and that's not the case," he said. "That's just a scarecrow tactic. Why not bring more law enforcement that could actually do a job?"
Sheriff Guerra said the surge in this county has been unaccompanied children and families, not as many violent criminals as Gov. Perry described in a press conference.
"I don't think that our citizens feel any danger because of the increase in those family units," said Guerra.
Perry said those troops will serve as visual deterrents, and they will be armed.
The Texas Democratic Party accused Perry, who spent part of the weekend in Iowa, of "continuing his routine of photo-op politics to further his presidential aspirations" rather than seeking long-term border solutions.
Eduardo Campirano, chairman of the Rio South Texas Economic Council said "adding a military presence to our communities will only create an inaccurate image that our safe and viable border region in the Rio Grande Valley is dangerous."
President George W. Bush sent 6,000 National Guard troops to the border in 2006, and Obama eventually extended that deployment while ordering a second wave to Texas, California, Arizona and New Mexico in 2010.
On previous border deployments, National Guard soldiers have served in support roles -- administrative, intelligence gathering. Some troops already participate in counter-drug operations on the border, though they don't have arrest powers.
Perry had announced last month that Texas would give $1.3 million per week to the Department of Public Safety to assist in border security through at least the end of the year. He said the state has already spent $500 million on border security but "as all of the Texans who have fallen victim to the crime at the hands of these criminal aliens will attest to, the price of inaction is too high for Texans to pay."
NBC 5 reporter Ray Villeda contributed to this report.