SAN JUAN, RGV – At an immigration roundtable comprising five members of Congress, a former White House cabinet member said the Rio Grande Valley is ground zero in the national immigration and border security debate.

The Hon. Julian Castro, former secretary of housing and urban development in the Obama administration and a former mayor of San Antonio, said if national leaders want to know what living on the border is all about they should visit the RGV. He also stressed the importance of good relations with Mexico.

“For generations, the United States and Mexico have been strong partners and that partnership has led to greater economic opportunities, better security, and more prosperity for both nations. And nowhere is the strength of that partnership more clear than right here in the Rio Grande Valley,” Castro said.

The immigration roundtable was held at the headquarters of La Unión del Pueblo Entero, a non-profit that assists colonia and low-income families in Hidalgo County. The event was hosted by Congressmen Filemon Vela of Brownsville and Vicente Gonzalez of McAllen. The other three members of Congress that participated were Reps. Lucille Roybal-Allard of California, Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, and Joe Crowley of New York. All five members of Congress are Democrats, as is Castro.

“I do not have to tell those of you here in this room that every single day, here in San Juan and throughout the Rio Grande Valley, family members visit each other on both sides of the border, companies to business on both sides and the culture of this place is intertwined with the input of both nations,” Castro said.

“Over the years, the United States and Mexico have grown stronger because they have been friends. And the fact is that that partnership is more necessary for the prosperity of both nations than ever before, in this 21st Century.”

Castro said the United States and Mexico are not in competition for jobs or business. He said their competition lay further afield.

“The United States and Mexico both face competition from around the world, from nations that are rising in other places, producing tons of young people who are ambitious, who are intelligent, who are creating companies and innovating. And we are in competition for good jobs and for investments. And there is no question that we are stronger if we work together than if we are separated.”

For this reason, Castro said, a proposed border wall is a bad idea.

“I’m convinced that the wall that Donald Trump has proposed would be a disaster, a big mistake. I’m convinced that the wall would do damage to that relationship. It would do damage to the economic opportunity and jobs that exist right here in the Rio Grande Valley and throughout the United States. It would do damage to our ability to compete all over the world,” Castro said.

Valley residents with similar viewpoints have an opportunity in the days to come to make their voices heard, Castro said. He commended Reps. Vela and Gonzalez for providing the media and the public with an opportunity to learn from local residents what life is really like on the border.

“You all are the ones that live it each and every day, Castro said, speaking to the audience. “And you are going to be the ones most impacted by what happens in the months and the years to come.”

Castro said there is a better way to approach immigration. He pointed to bi-partisan legislation offered in Congress in 2013 that, he said, would have increased border security and provided a legal way for undocumented immigrants to stay in the United States.

Castro also told the story of how his grandmother came to the United States from Mexico aged six to stay with extended family. She settled in San Antonio and her daughter, Castro’s mother, was the first in the family to go to college. He said he was proud to have served as San Antonio mayor and as HUD secretary and he was proud of his twin brother, Joaquin, who now serves as U.S. Representative for San Antonio.

“That is the essence of the American Dream,” Castro said, concluding his remarks. “We are a nation of immigrants, just like we are a nation of laws. We need to make sure that we respect the balance and get it right so that the American Dream continues to thrive.”

Rep. Vela

In his remarks, Rep. Vela, warned that President Trump’s new detainment policies are “laying the groundwork for mass deportations.”

“I think there has been a radical shift in priority with respect to deportations. President Obama prioritized deportations of one, people who committed felonies, and two, people who had committed misdemeanors more than three times,” Vela said.

“The Trump executive orders radically shift that. They would prioritize, one, anybody who has been convicted of any crime, including someone who has crossed with papers, two, anybody who has been charged with a crime, even if not resolved, so it would not even require conviction, and three, anybody who has committed acts that might constitute a crime, even if they are not charged. It lays the groundwork for mass deportations.”

In his remarks, Rep. Crowley had some advice for U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, who is slated to visit the Rio Grande Valley today. “Don’t just take a flyover, don’t take a helicopter and see from thousands of feet up. Get down here with the people. Listen to their stories,” Crowley said.

Rep. DeLauro

In her remarks, Rep. DeLauro said her visit to the Valley could not be more timely. She said she was “disturbed” by President Trump’s border security and immigration policies.

“I want to recognize LUPE for hosting us this afternoon you are strength to our community to set an example of the potential of civic engagement and real change that can be made and that other organizations can follow and you carry on Cesar Chavez’s legacy in so many remarkable ways so I am grateful to be here working with you,” DeLauro said.

The Connecticut congresswoman said it is important that the most vulnerable in society have access to high quality representation in the U.S. justice system. “I believe that common sense and humanity have to come into play in our border control and our immigration system. A policy that separates families is an inhumane policy.”

DeLauro said President Trump’s border wall proposal is a bad idea and it will not work.
“We need to focus on the building and the investing in the infrastructure in our communities, not wasting resources on a wasteful bigoted project like the wall. The president’s harmful rhetoric about Mexican immigrants does not reflect reality, but it does have a real impact on the lives of immigrant families and it is unacceptable.”

Rep. Roybal-Allard

Rep. Roybal-Allard said she represents a large immigrant community in her California district. She said she therefore knows the contribution they make to the economy. She said the most important message that can be sent from the immigration roundtable is that immigrants are not criminals.

“They are valuable people, they are mothers, fathers, children, families that contribute to this country, that is the message because what is happening at this time in Washington is that the administration is sending the message that everyone is a criminal and that they are danger to this country and we know that is a big lie,” Roybal-Allard said.

“The sad thing is that there are many people, many Americans that do not know the value of immigrants and that they are accepting what is being said in Washington and that is why I am happy to be here.”

Roybal-Allard said that without immigrants, the economy will fail.

“It is the economic impact that is going to make a difference which means that the chambers of commerce, agriculture, hotels, restaurants they have to have the courage, because a lot of them are Republicans, a lot of them in fact voted for Trump and it’s going to take mobilizing people across this country to go to Washington to contact the leadership and the White House to tell them that this cannot happen, our economy will crumble.”

Editor’s Note: Reporters Apolonio Sandoval, Jr., and Stephanie Jara contributed to this story from San Juan, Texas.