Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts kicked off a Republican election rally Friday by touting not just his own record but also that of President Donald Trump.
Ricketts said Trump has arguably had “the most successful two years of any president in the last hundred years,” pointing to the tax overhaul, judicial nominations and the rolling back of regulations.
And Ricketts drew particularly enthusiastic applause from the roomful of party faithful when he got to Trump’s immigration policies.
“He has worked to secure our borders and make sure that the thousands of gate crashers that are coming toward our southern border right now are going to be met by increased border security,” Ricketts said. “President Trump said a nation without a border is not a nation.”
Trump said this week that he would deploy as many as 15,000 military personnel to the border, doubling the figure Pentagon officials have announced would be operating there. It was one of several steps Trump has announced in response to caravans of Central American migrants as he tries to make immigration a salient issue in advance of next week’s midterm elections.
It’s a move that’s drawn criticism from political opponents, including Bob Krist, the Democrat running for Nebraska governor against Ricketts.
Krist served 21 years in the U.S. Air Force before retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 2000. He said he spent a couple of those years as the active-duty adviser to the Nebraska National Guard.
Krist said he understands having a small number of guard soldiers providing administrative support at the border, but he characterized the president’s moves as a show of force tied more to political goals than sensible policy.
“This is President Trump and Gov. Ricketts stirring up the base, making sure that everybody understands that they’re in charge,” Krist said.
He said major questions remain, including what the troops will actually be doing and who will pay for sending them down.
“It’s not as easy as just saying ‘Strap it on boys, let’s go,’ ” Krist said. “You have to both protect your guard interests, your militia interests, as a governor. You also have to understand how they’re going to be used.”
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Krist said he agrees with former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who said during an interview Thursday on CNN that the president is using the troops in a political way.
“As a former soldier … I know the kinds of sacrifices these men and women are involved with every day, and their families,” said Hagel, who served in Vietnam. “And to use them as political pawns like this, as a complete fabrication, is really wrong.”
Hagel also said he felt “disgust” in response to Trump’s suggestion during remarks at the White House on Thursday that U.S. military at the border could fire on members of the caravan if the migrants throw rocks at soldiers.
“That’s a wanton incitement of unnecessary violence,” Hagel said. “It’s a distraction, it’s a distortion, it is of rank political purpose to use our military like this.”
Asked by a reporter Wednesday if the mobilization of troops was a stunt meant to stoke Trump’s political base, current Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said, “We don’t do stunts in this department.”
For his part, Ricketts stood behind Trump, both in regards to sending more troops to the border and the president’s comments about migrant rock throwing.
“I think one of the things the president is emphasizing is that our soldiers and our troops will defend themselves,” Ricketts said. “I think that there’s obviously ways that we can do that that are going to be nonlethal. But it’s important that people know that we’ve got a border and we’re going to secure it.”
As for the timing of all this Republican border talk, Ricketts said it’s the events themselves that are driving the discussion.
“The caravans that are trying to crash our gates here have made this an issue,” he said. “When you’ve got literally thousands of people that say they’re going to try to get into our country, it makes illegal immigration an issue.”
There are already Nebraska National Guard soldiers stationed at the border.
Although not related to Trump’s request for more troops, 48 Nebraska National Guard soldiers are at the border in Texas and Arizona assisting the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. The soldiers were sent in small groups in August and mid-October.
There are 19 soldiers in Texas and 29 in Arizona, said Lt. Col. Kevin Hynes, a Nebraska National Guard spokesman. The soldiers are providing logistical, maintenance and administrative support.
The soldiers are from units scattered across the state.
Hynes said members of the guard were deployed as part of Operation Guardian Support.
Soldiers from Nebraska have been periodically deployed to the border over the years as far back as 2006 to provide support to the federal agency.
National Guard personnel deployed for Operation Guardian Support are not armed and do not engage in enforcement operations in the field, according to a press release from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Ricketts said Friday that he’s willing to send more soldiers to help secure the border if the president asks for them.
There are currently four caravans heading toward the United States. The main group of about 4,000 migrants — down from its estimated peak of more than 7,000 — remains in southern Mexico, mostly on foot and hundreds of miles from the border.
A second group of 1,000 or so is more than 200 miles behind the first. A third band of about 500 from El Salvador has made it to Guatemala, and a fourth group of 700 set out from the Salvadoran capital Wednesday.
Apprehensions of undocumented immigrants at the southwest border are up for 2018, but are down by 75 percent from the peak level seen in 2000.
At that time, the U.S. Border Patrol made 1.6 million apprehensions of undocumented immigrants at the southwest border, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics. For the 2018 fiscal year, that figure totaled 396,579.
The annual figure has fluctuated throughout this decade — it’s up from 303,916 last year, but down from 408,870 in 2016, federal statistics show.
Over the course of the last 40 years, the U.S. is at near historic lows for people apprehended at the border, said Mark Hugo Lopez, director of global migration and demography research at the Pew Research Center. The relative decline in those apprehensions comes even as enforcement at the border has increased compared to past years, he said.
“We’re way below the peaks in terms of apprehensions at the border,” Lopez said.
World-Herald staff writers Steve Liewer and Jeffrey Robb contributed to this report, which also includes material from the Associated Press and the Washington Post.