PIERRE, S.D. — The top official of the South Dakota National Guard defended the deployment of nearly 50 troops, who earlier this summer were sent to the southern border after South Dakota's coffers received a $1 million gift a GOP mega-donor, arguing that despite appearances the state's soldiers "are not for sale."
State National Guard Adjutant General Jeff Marlette told members of the interim appropriations committee on Wednesday, Aug. 19, that he was never privy to information about the financial gift that Gov. Kristi Noem announced as helping defray costs for the mission aiding other state and federal authorities responding to an influx of migrants over the southern border.
"One of the sensitivities that I want to make crystal clear is that our National Guard is not for hire," said Marlette. "Nowhere in the discussions that I had with the governor leading into this mission was there talk of a millionaire donation, so I don't know where and when that came into play."
In fact, the donation was publicized first by Noem's office, who initially only alluded to a private donor funding the mission in a press release.
On Wednesday, the adjutant general went on to mirror rhetoric employed by Noem to justify the mission, decrying migrants seeking asylum as "illegals" and common carriers of illicit drugs and COVID-19.
"The coyotes or whatever you want to call them have quickly figured out that if you put kids with somebody crossing you can call them a family and they get treated differently," said Marlette.
A spokesperson did not respond for clarification on Marlette's use of pejorative language of asylum seekers, a legal right under U.S. law for decades. Moreover, according to city officials in McAllen, Texas, the vast majority of immigrants do not carry COVID-19. In fact, the spread of the virus in Texas is attributed to community spread, largely amongst the unvaccinated.
Nevertheless, lawmakers largely welcomed the adjutant general's talking points, saying they'd be able to pass on answers to constituents who were troubled by a troops-for-hire exchange that one Republican lawmaker said resembled "mercenaries."
"All they [voters] hear is what's reported in the media, and I'd like to provide them facts," said appropriations co-chair Rep. Chris Karr, a Sioux Falls Republican, who nevertheless also acknowledged the deployment was "something that is semi-unusual."
In late June, Noem announced the troop deployment at the same time she announced a gift of $1 million from a non-profit from Republican donor Willis Johnson, of Tennessee, who told the Associated Press he'd approached Noem with the unusual offer.
While South Dakota has deployed National Guard troops to the southern border before, it's not believed any missions have ever been enabled by a private donation.
Most committee members cheered the underlying reasons for the deployment, with Rep. Taffy Howard, a Rapid City Republican and potential primary challenger for U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson, characterizing the dramatic increase in migrants crossing the southern border as "truly an invasion."
Adjutant General Marlette responded that Guard troops were assisting a variety of tasks, including patrolling the river, but also, in some instances, providing CPR to a toddler and helping to deliver a baby.
Still, some lawmakers pressed hard questions at both state officials.
Sen. Reynold Nesiba, D-Sioux Falls, noted that the state requesting troops via the interstate compact usually pays for the deployment.
"This one has been more complicated by a billionaire donating a million dollars to the case which," Nesiba argued, "in some ways, is protecting the taxpayers of Texas a million dollars' worth of expenses."
When he asked about, Marlette suggested to lawmakers the full cost of the deployment of the 48 personnel to McAllen — all volunteers for the mission — could likely hit $1.3 million or more.
Kristi Turman, division director for emergency services in the Department of Public Safety, added that the Guard would come to the legislature asking for a special appropriation if their expenses exceeded Willis's $1 million donation.