MISSION, Texas – Elected officials from South Texas were disappointed they did not get a chance to talk to President Trump during his visit to the border region on Thursday.
Instead, they had to make do with a roundtable discussion organized by Texas’ two U.S. senators, John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, that the president did not attend.
At the event, held at the Anzalduas International Bridge in Mission, local mayors and county judges urged greater funding for infrastructure at international ports of entry and requested that the inaccurate portrayal of their region as violent and in crisis be stopped.
President Trump and his entourage flew into McAllen International Airport around lunchtime on Thursday. They held a meeting with border law enforcement officials at a Border Patrol station in McAllen and staged a news conference next to the Rio Grande at Anzalduas Park in Mission.
There were hundreds of noisy supporters and detractors lining the streets outside the airport.
Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz was one of a handful of elected officials that sat in on the meeting at the Border Patrol station.
“The president was basically building his case for the border wall. I did not see much room from him opening up for compromise. He is not yielding,” Saenz told the Rio Grande Guardian.
“He was asking for comments but they were all on the same page. It was the blame game and he blamed the Democrats. We need to get away from that. I was hoping for something different.”
Saenz said he would have liked to hear Trump say he was open to a “virtual wall” with the emphasis on technology and personnel, rather than a physical barrier. “One size does not fit all. The administration needs to listen to local communities here on the border.”
Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez said the discussion at the Border Patrol station was “very structured” with no opportunity for input from South Texas leaders.
“Nobody really got to speak to him (Trump). It was the same at Anzalduas Park. I would have liked to have said that the rhetoric as to how bad things are here just isn’t true. There is not enough evidence to show we have a national emergency here, that we are a violent place. That has to stop because it is hurting us. People have a misconception as to who we are and what we are,” Cortez said.
During the roundtable discussion, Sergio Coronado, mayor of Hidalgo, emphasized the importance of Mexican visitors to the South Texas economy.
“I agree with Senator Cruz that South Texas is booming but a lot of it has to do with the money that comes from Mexico and the investors that come from Mexico; people that come to the United States to spend their dollars and create jobs here,” Coronado said.
“When we talk about the wall and shutting down the bridge, we are sending the wrong message. People are getting scared. They are not coming over like they used to if we send that message.”
Coronado added: “Before we talk about a border wall, we should talk about building a bridge, a bridge of communication, a bridge of social conscience. We have a positive message.”
Harlingen Mayor Chris Boswell told the two senators that all the rhetoric about the border region being a dangerous place to live and work had to stop.
“I have had this concern for a long time: the collateral damage that occurs from all the rhetoric we hear, the crisis on the border, the violence on the border and the perception that creates for our people. Despite that we have made lots of economic gains. Our unemployment rates are the lowest they have been in a decade. But, nevertheless, we are still hampered by the fallout from the constant rhetoric about violence and the crisis on the border,” Boswell said.
Boswell offered an example of the damage such rhetoric is doing.
“I have heard VA officials complain they have difficulty recruiting specialist positions to the VA System because their wives are concerned or their husbands are concerned that it is unsafe to come to the Rio Grande Valley. It is not,” Boswell said.
“The chief of police in McAllen said you are eight times more likely to be murdered in Houston than you are in the Rio Grande Valley. It is a much safer environment. Yet, all you hear in the news media, I won’t mention any other names, but the constant barrage of this is not good for business, it is not good for education, it is not good for developing this region.”
Scott Luck, deputy chief of U.S. Border Patrol, spoke in favor of physical barriers at the southern border.
“The physical barrier has worked every place I have been. I have been in places where they did not have it, they put it in and it worked. Douglas, Arizona, used to be McAllen, Texas. There were more people coming in than any other place in the country. I was there. It stopped. It stopped in California, it stopped in Yuma, it stopped in El Paso. It will stop wherever we put it.” Luck said.
Luck added that a physical barrier is not the only component for a secure border. He said technology and personnel were important also.
David P. Higgerson, director of field operations for Customs & Border Protection’s Laredo Field Office, stressed the importance of international trade and the need for more infrastructure at land ports of entry.
Higgerson said that 300 billion dollars worth of trade crosses through the Texas ports every year; that seven out of ten trucks that cross the southern border cross through the Laredo field office, and that eight out of ten train cars that cross the southern border cross through the Laredo field office.
On a single day, the Laredo field office issues around 5,000 I-94s, Higgerson pointed out. I-94s are issued to tourists who are entering the country.
Higgerson said land ports of entry do not have the capacity to handle the medical staff and immigration judges they are now being asked to house. He said there is insufficient band-width to do facial recognition for northbound crossers.
He concluded his comments by pointing out that international ports create “millions of jobs.”
Brandon Judd, president of the Border Patrol Council, a union for Border Patrol agents, appeared to be negotiating for President Trump.
“If the president was to give the infrastructure that was necessary at the ports of entry, would you support physical barriers,” Judd asked the local mayors and county judges.
“We not talking about a 2,000-mile wall, we are talking about physical barriers in strategic locations.”
Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño, Jr., responded:
“If you tell us where you need it, I think we are all on board. If the politicians tell us where we need it, I think that is where we have our concern.
“We want you to have everything you need to do your job. We want you to be safe when you do it. At the same time, let’s not be wasteful.
“I think Senator Cruz and I, we can definitely agree, we would rather have the money going into our economic development and our education, as opposed to just something that is going to make somebody feel good about winning or losing.”