Critics question taxpayers’ footing the bill for Nebraska State Patrol border missions

Govs. Pillen and Ricketts defended the unreimbursed missions as critical to public safety, border security

By: - July 24, 2023 5:45 am

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, seated middle, and his law enforcement teams brief GOP governors in May on the situation at the Southern U.S. border. (Courtesy of the Nebraska Governor’s Office)

LINCOLN — A second Nebraska governor who campaigned as a fiscal conservative has spent six figures in state tax dollars helping Texas patrol the Southern U.S. border and opting not to request reimbursement.

The state’s tab has already pushed north of $600,000 for three Texas-requested deployments of Nebraska State Patrol troopers, one by Gov. Jim Pillen and two by former Gov. Pete Ricketts, based on state estimates obtained by the Nebraska Examiner.

A Nebraska State Patrol trooper observes the border with a member of Texas law enforcement during the Patrol’s 2021 deployment. (Courtesy of U.S. Customs and Border Protection)

Nebraska’s responses to the Texas requests for help in 2021 and 2023 make clear that Pillen and Ricketts, like several other red-state governors, including Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, agreed not to seek reimbursement from Texas for the costs. They did so despite Texas setting aside more than $4 billion for border security since 2020.

Until Texas made these border requests, it was rare for any state to request unreimbursed help from other states through the national emergency management system, a University of Nebraska at Omaha expert said in 2021.

States can’t pursue reimbursement from the federal government because the feds didn’t declare an emergency or request help from those states through the Department of Homeland Security. Nebraska paid its costs out of the Patrol’s $75.2 million general fund budget.

Costs rising for taxpayers

The $600,000 cost of the border deployments is enough to pay the starting salaries of nearly 10 troopers. It’s more in general funds than the state spent in 2021-22 on the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission, the agency responsible for enforcing campaign finance laws.

The federal Department of Homeland Security, based on the most recent available figures, spends at least $17.5 billion on Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, also known as ICE.

The final cost to Nebraska taxpayers is likely more than the state estimates show because they do not account for backfilling the shifts of deployed troopers at home. The Patrol was still checking all of its public records related to cost.

Humanitarian crisis with long reach

Pillen and Ricketts have defended sending the Patrol to the border as necessary for public safety and national security. Each has said the Biden administration has failed to stem the flow of migrants trying to enter the country without permission.

Gov. Jim Pillen, left front, listens with other GOP governors in May as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and his law enforcement teams brief them on the situation at the Southern U.S. border. (Courtesy of the Nebraska Governor’s Office)

The core of their arguments boils down to the conservative talking point that “every state is now a border state.” Sending help, Ricketts and Pillen argued, addresses a humanitarian crisis and law enforcement issue that impacts Nebraska.

Critics said the deployments risk causing confusion and fear among Nebraskans of Latino heritage. Several of them questioned the effectiveness of spending Nebraska tax dollars in Texas when illegal border crossings have persisted under presidents of both parties, except for a brief slowdown because of restrictions issued during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Elsa Ramon Aranda, of LULAC of Nebraska and Sam Petto of ACLU Nebraska, argued the state is throwing away tax dollars to score political points instead of focusing public attention on comprehensive federal immigration reform.

Illegal border crossings, which had been high for months, dropped in June to their lowest level since February 2021, with 99,545 law enforcement encounters, according to federal statistics.

Neither Pillen nor Ricketts is likely to face political blowback from their own party, national and statewide polling indicates. Most Republicans, even those who list fiscal conservatism as a top priority, support additional spending on border security. The picture is more mixed among Democrats and independents.

Pillen sent 10 to border, and Ricketts sent more

After a visit to Texas in May, Pillen sent 10 troopers, including eight drone operators, to the McAllen-Brownville area in late May and early June, at a cost of $128,000. He said Nebraskans’ “efforts were instrumental in stemming the type of illegal activity that threatens the security of all states.”

Those drone operators, he said, helped Texas monitor the border without putting state or federal officers “at physical risk.” Patrol officials said the deployment helped the Patrol’s drone operators get fieldwork that will help them with their regular work. 

Nebraska State Patrol Special Operations Division Capt. Jason Scott said the drone pilots flew 347 missions for 109 hours of flight time, “a lifetime of experience in a two-week period” for drone pilots who will return to Nebraska better prepared when they need to help hunt for fugitives or survey crash scenes.

State and federal law enforcement agencies have deployed to the Texas border with Mexico since that state started asking for help in 2021. (Courtesy of U.S. Customs and Border Enforcement)

“They can leverage what they learned in Texas, how to use a thermal drone during the daylight to your advantage and how to operate those things in extreme temperatures and over extreme distances and really push the limits,” Scott said.

Scott said this trip differed from the Patrol’s on-the-ground role in 2021. Texas used Nebraska’s help during the earlier deployments to help the state intervene against human smuggling and drug smuggling efforts, he said. This time, Texas used Patrol technology to supplement border law enforcement staffing.

Ricketts’ 2021 deployments, which cost a total of about $500,000, involved 32 state troopers in the Del Rio area for up to 24 days. Officials said the value for troopers included learning to spot people being held against their will. They made more than 500 traffic stops, the Patrol said. Meanwhile in Nebraska, the Patrol issued hundreds fewer tickets to drivers during the trooper deployments than the agency had in the same period the previous year. 

Patrol sees value, some see stunt

Scott said he understood that some who opposed sending the Patrol have argued that helping Texas could cost the Patrol some goodwill in Latino communities. But, he said, the issues facing migrants don’t stop at the border.

He said the deployments have helped troopers to learn more about the debt some migrants must repay to human smugglers. He said the Patrol has already seen that what happens along the border affects Nebraska, because troopers have run across people in Grand Island who later said they had crossed the border near Del Rio.

“I understand there’s a lot of people that are tied up in this situation because they want a better life, and we didn’t come on this job because we didn’t want those people to have a better life,” he said. “But this isn’t the way to go about it.”

Scott said, “The troopers we take down there are finding value in the work that’s being done, which is why we have no problem staffing these volunteer missions.”

Migrants hold hands as they cross the border between the U.S. and Mexico at the Rio Grande River, on their way to enter El Paso, Texas, on May 20, 2019, as taken from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The Texas deployments worry many Nebraska Latinos and their advocates, Ramon Aranda said, especially as national criticism mounts against some of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s choices to restrict migrants, including building fencing in the middle of the Rio Grande River.

She said Nebraska’s “use of these dollars and resources for these purposes sends the wrong message.” She said it “helps create a hostile, divisive environment” for residents who might one day need law enforcement help.

LULAC, which advocates for Latinos, said it would rather see Pillen invest more time and energy in lobbying the state’s congressional delegation to embrace bipartisan immigration reform that addresses problems for people who want to enter legally.

“A gushing wound is not healed with a finger-sized Band-Aid,” Ramon Aranda said. “We implore the governor to engage in good-faith conversations with Latino groups and organizations in the state of Nebraska to find long-term solutions to long-term problems.”

Political impact of decision unclear

Nebraska Democratic Party Chair Jane Kleeb said taxpayers should think about what “critical issues in our communities” could use $600,000. She offered an example she said could improve public safety: investing more in mental health services.

“Governor Pillen doesn’t care about solving border security issues, and he doesn’t care about wasting our tax dollars,” she said. “Pillen cares about his next political ad having a one liner for his base.” 

The decision to spend state tax dollars along the border is popular among even Republicans who haven’t been the biggest fans of Pillen or Ricketts.

A dust storm hits several hundred migrants as they wait on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande to be picked up and processed by immigration officials in El Paso, Texas. (Ivan Pierre Aguirre for the Texas Tribune)

Robert Anthony, an executive director of the Nebraska Freedom Coalition, represents part of a populist wing of the GOP that talks often about the importance of border security. The Freedom Coalition sometimes clashes with Pillen. Anthony, who lives in Sarpy County, said many Republicans he knows support redirecting tax dollars by deploying Nebraska law enforcement officers to the border.

“I don’t want my tax dollars going anywhere,” he said. “But if it’s already there, let’s reallocate money. I’m completely supportive. … We are Nebraska First. But a close second to that is America First.” 

Petto, of ACLU Nebraska, said Nebraskans should consider whether it helps to send a handful of troopers to a state that’s already spending billions on border security or when the federal border enforcement bureaucracy employs 60,000 people.

The national ACLU is suing the Biden administration over its border enforcement policies.

“It boggles the mind that a couple dozen troopers really makes a difference,” he said. “At the worst, what this does is it contributes to politicization of this issue.”

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Aaron Sanderford
Aaron Sanderford

Political reporter Aaron Sanderford has tackled various news roles in his 20-plus year career. He has reported on politics, crime, courts, government and business for the Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal-Star. He also worked as an assignment editor and editorial writer. He was an investigative reporter at KMTV.