PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — Photo ops with the troops. Political points on an issue sure to loom large in 2024 presidential debates. Another chance to tout a tough-on-illegal immigration stance that comes rarely for a governor whose state is closer to Canada than Mexico.
There’s plenty of reasons for South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem’s Monday visit to National Guard troops she deployed to the U.S. border with Mexico. She says she is making the flight to the border city of McAllen, Texas, to check in on the roughly 50 National Guard members who volunteered for a 30-day deployment and let them know “we appreciate their service.”
The visit also gives the ambitious governor a chance to pick up where former President Donald Trump left off in making hard-line immigration measures a driving force of the Republican party. Noem eagerly joined the political fight with President Joe Biden over a surge in border crossings. She deployed the Guard members to aid Texas’ push to arrest people crossing the border illegally and charge them with state crimes.
For any Republican eyeing a 2024 presidential bid, a trip to the U.S.-Mexico border may become as necessary as visiting early primary states. Among the governors who have joined Gov. Greg Abbott’s initiative, Noem and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis are the only ones to stage news conferences at the border.
Noem has also used the deployment to jab at fellow Republicans as she tries to carve out a niche in an early crowd of potential 2024 presidential candidates. Abbott had specifically asked other states to send law enforcement officers because they could be deputized to make arrests, but Noem sent the message that her way — sending National Guard troops ready for an extended deployment — was superior.
“It’s irresponsible right now with what we see across the country to shortchange law enforcement,” Noem told the crowd at a conservative conference in Texas this month, alluding to rising crime in some American cities.
Noem’s rhetoric may be more about taking a veiled dig at DeSantis, who made his own border trip last week after sending 50 law enforcement officers to Texas. She has also appeared to take aim at her fellow GOP governor — a potential early rival for the Republican presidential nomination — over his record on government restrictions during the pandemic.
However, Noem’s trip comes with its own political baggage: She was fiercely criticized for accepting $1 million from a Republican donor to fund the deployment. Military experts said it set a troubling precedent that sent a message that military troops could be deployed at the behest of private donors.
But Noem brushed aside those concerns, and instead cast the donation as proof she is fiscally conservative. By accepting the donation, she argued, she was saving taxpayer money. And she was already eager to join the border fight when Tennessee billionaire Willis Johnson called with his $1 million offer — she was just deliberating whether to send police officers or National Guard troops.
Meanwhile, Texas authorities last week began arresting people along the border on trespassing charges. At least 10 people were jailed, but the number of migrant arrests could increase to as many as 100 or 200 per day, according to authorities.
Large numbers of migrants have been showing up at the U.S. border with Mexico, with many turning themselves over to U.S. Border Patrol agents in seeking legal asylum status. U.S. officials reported this month that they had encountered 55,805 members of families with children in June, which was up 25% from the previous month. That figure still remains far below the high of 88,587 in May 2019.
As Noem visits the troops Monday, she will also step into a border policy debate that has no easy answers.
“It’s broken today,” she said. “We’ve talked about it forever. I would say even my party has failed to put forward a comprehensive immigration reform program.”
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