MISSION, RGV – San Juan Mayor San Juanita Sanchez says she plans to tell as many visitors from Washington, D.C., as she can this week about the fear that currently exists in her community.

It is shaping up to be an historic week for the Rio Grande Valley, with close to two dozen federal officials paying a visit. The highlight is the visit of House Speaker Paul Ryan on Wednesday.

San Juan Mayor San Juanita Sanchez

Mayor Sanchez said one of the key points she wants to stress is the level of anxiety caused by ICE raids on immigrant communities.

“I am here as an elected official to tell our visitors about the needs and concerns of our communities along the border. I think it is important we voice our community’s concerns. It is important we voice our own concerns as we try to make sense of what is coming out of Washington. I want them to listen to members of our community. The attention should be focused on the reality of the issues not just a superficial approach that show they were here,” Sanchez told the Rio Grande Guardian.

“What I hear from my community and from the community groups is that people feel intimated, afraid to come out, much less report any kind of crime that is happening, for fear they get visited at their house. So many of our families are mixed status, they have some family members that are legal and some that are not. Many do not understand the rights they have. I hate the thought that children are not going to school, not getting medical attention, that families are staying at home. One of the things we definitely hear is, ‘I am not going to call the police.’ That concerns me.”

Sanchez said there should be a clear demarcation between the work of federal law enforcement agencies and local law enforcement agencies. “Let the federal agencies do what they need to do, we need to patrol our communities and not be made enforcers of anything other than our laws.”

Sanchez made her comments on Saturday, just before entering a private meeting with U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz at the Center for Education and Economic Development in Mission. About a dozen elected officials, including Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia, participated in the meeting.

Asked what the chances are of Washington leaders paying attention to the needs of the Valley, Sanchez of San Juan said: “I will take every opportunity I can to voice our concerns. We may not be able to control much more than talk to our local representatives about what is happening here. But, we as a community have to be on top of things. We need to be informing our communities, ensuring our communities understand what is happening. We need assurance as elected officials about threats of federal funds being pulled from us if certain things are not done. All of us have a lot of questions that need to be asked. We are in limbo trying to figure things out.”

Sanchez said she has a direct message for the residents of San Juan and the wider Valley area: “I ask the community to stay on top of things, not to be fearful. To maintain their voice, that we are not an oppressed community. We have a voice.”

A Historic Week

The historic nature of the week ahead can be seen in the number of visiting VIPs slated to visit the Valley. Close to two dozen U.S. senators and representatives – most notably House Speaker Ryan on Wednesday – will be in the region. President Trump is expected to have much of his border security agenda acted upon by Congress in the coming months and so with the House and Senate in recess this week has been deemed a good time for a fact-finding tour.

U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan

Border security is likely to dominate the discussions of visiting VIPs but local mayors and economic development leaders are hoping just as much attention is paid to international trade. They wish the press conferences the VIPs stage would be held at the Pharr International Bridge, so that the TV cameras pick up on trade with Mexico, rather than the banks of the Rio Grande at Anzalduas Park in Mission, where the optics so often portray a militarized zone to the rest of America.

“It is going to be an historic week. My sincere hope is they don’t just talk to the elected officials. I hope they get out and talk to the community,” said San Benito Mayor Celeste Sanchez.

Mayor Sanchez of San Juan (no relation) agreed.

“These visits should not just be about border security and immigration but about the economic impact of what happens here. This is the front door to the United States. Any kind of change to our trading relations with Mexico could potentially have a great impact,” said San Juanita Sanchez.

“We depend in a very profound way on our neighbors to the south and so does Texas as a whole. Mexico is suffering from the devaluation of the Peso. That trickles down to us and our community. People are not coming over and spending the kind of money they did in the past.”

Doing their own thing

As normal, Democrats and Republicans will have separate events. For example, this lunchtime, Democrats led by U.S. Reps Filemon Vela and Vicente Gonzalez will hold an immigration roundtable discussion at La Unión del Pueblo Entero’s headquarters in San Juan. At the same time this is happening, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn will hold a news conference at Anzalduas Park with five fellow Republicans from Congress, including the chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, Michael McCaul.

In addition to Congressmen Vela of Brownsville and Gonzalez of McAllen, the immigration roundtable will feature U.S. Reps. Joe Crowley of New York, Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, and Lucille Roybal-Allard of California. the Hon. Julian Castro, the former secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, will also participate, as will a staff person for U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, who represents Laredo.

Vela and Gonzalez will hold a news conference at 1:00 p.m. with the roundtable discussion slated to run from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m.

In addition to Rep. McCall of Austin, Texas, the delegation Sen. Cornyn has assembled comprises U.S. Sens. Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Dean Heller of Nevada, and U.S. Reps John Carter of Round Rock, Texas, Mike Conaway of Midland, Texas, David Rouzer, of North Carolina.

U.S. Rep. John Carter

According to a news advisory, the Republican delegation will learn about border security, trade, and economic development issues unique to the region.

“The delegation’s day in the Valley will include a vehicular and boat tour of the border highlighting the unique terrain and innovative levee wall solution in the region, along with a tour of the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge and the Falfurrias Border Patrol Checkpoint,” the advisory states.

“They will also visit the McAllen Border Patrol Station, where they will receive a comprehensive briefing on law enforcement’s multi-layered approach to securing the South Texas border, improving public safety, and ensuring the flow of legitimate trade and travel through ports of entry and tour the Centralized Processing Center.”

Cruz visit

A hectic five days of trips to the Valley by VIPs from Washington, D.C., actually started on Saturday with a visit by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. Cruz held two private meetings at the CEED building in Mission, one with local mayors and one with economic development and business leaders from the Valley. Afterwards, Cruz took a boat trip on the Rio Grande with Border Patrol.

San Benito Mayor Celeste Sanchez

Mayors Sanchez of San Benito participated in the first of the private meetings.  She said she hopes and believes Cruz took on board the concerns raised.

“We talked about border security, the Wall, the rhetoric, healthcare for our people and veterans, the economy and jobs. Sen. Cruz listened. I pray that he came with an open mind and that he will take the comments and information we provided to heart and really consider these before making decisions in Washington,” Mayor Celeste Sanchez told the Rio Grande Guardian.

“We talked about our citizens being scared. That they do not want to report crime for fear of having a family member deported. We also talked about the importance of international trade and the importance of tourism to our area. Because of the bad publicity received by our region people think it is not safe to come here. It is not true.”

Asked how Sen. Cruz responded, Mayor Celeste Sanchez said: “Sometimes he responded, sometimes he did not comment. I hope he takes this back to Washington and not let this go in one ear and out the other. I don’t think so. He appeared very genuine. It appeared that he wants to know and wants to consider what we had to offer.”

Asked if Valley leaders are ready to receive all the VIPs coming to the region this week, including Speaker Ryan, Mayor Celeste Sanchez said: “Yes, we are. In our meetings with the COG, we do talk about things, we do call each other, we are all experiencing the same issues, the economy, jobs, border security, the rhetoric, and healthcare for our citizens.”

COG stands for Council of Government. The Council of Government for Hidalgo, Cameron and Willacy counties is the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council. Mayor Celeste Sanchez is 1st Vice President of the organization.

Border Business hearing

On Wednesday morning, the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council co-hosts a Border Business hearing with Congressmen Vela and Gonzalez. Many of the VIPs slated to participate in Monday’s Immigration Roundtable in San Juan are expected to take part in the Border Business hearing. It will take place at the LRGVDC’s offices in Weslaco.

“This hearing will feature regional business panelists discussing the value of relationships with Mexico in regards to commerce along the border. The featured topic has direct correlation to the Lower Rio Grande Valley 2017-2022 Regional Strategic Plan and LRGVDC is privileged to host and align with these efforts,” said Ron Garza, executive director of LRGVDC.