While President Donald Trump’s visit to McAllen, Texas Thursday was intended to win a public relations battle with congressional Democrats regarding the partial government shutdown over the $5 billion in funding he wants for a border wall, his visit provided an opening for local officials who feel the biggest crisis may be the misperceptions that Washington’s political fight has about the region. But at the end of the day, local officials said they felt powerless to show the region’s best face and little was accomplished.
“President Trump came here with an agenda,” said Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez. “The whole trip was orchestrated to hear what he wanted to hear and he didn’t meet with any local officials that I know of. As far as the president was concerned, the whole trip was a photo op.”
One of the most outspoken defenders of the region’s image is second-term McAllen mayor Jim Darling, who was on hand to welcome the president. When asked what image he was hoping the president would leave with, Darling said, “What everybody else says when they first visit the Valley: ‘I was surprised.’ And the reason they are surprised is that they don’t realize what a dynamic place it is.”
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As the president drew national attention to the region, Darling and others hoped to show the country that actual life and commerce on the border are so integrated with the Mexican people and the Mexican economy that international boundaries are virtually meaningless—and walls are destructive to the delicate balance of cross-border commerce that fuels the area’s economy.
Trump emerged from Air Force One to the applause of about 200 law enforcement agents, mostly Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection officers, and their families, gathered in a holding pen. For ten minutes, he met with the supporters while a brief chant of “Build the wall!” emerged before quickly dying down. The same faint chant could be heard along the perimeter of the airport, where hundreds of demonstrators had gathered, with a surprising number of Trump supporters in this solidly Democratic region.
If proximity to power is a sign of it, then Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick captured the day. He was on hand as part of the delegation to welcome the president, a group that also included Darling, Mission mayor Armando O’Caña, Hidalgo County judge Richard Cortez, and Texas attorney general Ken Paxton. As people boarded a 26-car motorcade to inspect border facilities, Patrick climbed into the coveted seat next to Trump. Earlier this week, Patrick missed the opening day of the Texas Legislature to attend a meeting at the White House, sparking rumors in Washington and Austin that the lieutenant governor would soon be appointed to an administrative position—rumors he tamped down in Austin the next day.
Patrick spoke forcefully of the need for a border wall before Trump landed and told reporters that the next state budget, which has yet to be released, will maintain the massive $800 million allotment for border security, news that even members of the Texas Senate had not been told.
Despite their intent to impress on Trump the dynamics of the South Texas economy, Darling and other local officials climbed into vehicles far back in the motorcade, underscoring the challenge and frustration that locals have about the ongoing border security debate: They have few opportunities to sway policymakers in Austin and Washington, many of whom share common misconceptions about the region. One major misconception is that the area is in crisis. Locals acknowledge that a crisis exists, but it’s a crisis in Central America with symptoms felt along the southern border as unprecedented numbers of families cross illegally and ask for asylum in this country. It’s a crisis, they say, that has been exacerbated by administration policies that initially separated these families, a situation that then evolved into a major judicial backlog of cases dealing with a zero-tolerance policy adopted by Trump’s Justice Department.
“We are out of space to hold them and we have no way to promptly return them back home to their country,” Trump said in his Oval Office address Tuesday before conflating migrants with criminals. “In the last two years, ICE officers made 266,000 arrests of aliens with criminal records including those charged or convicted of 100,000 assaults, 30,000 sex crimes, and 4,000 violent killings,” Trump said. But locals say they’re frustrated by this politicking and its pummeling to the region’s image, particularly as it relates to public safety. McAllen police chief Victor Rodriguez told the local newspaper, The Monitor, on Wednesday that the city’s crime rate last year was the lowest it had been in 34 years. Underscoring that, a local historic movie theater, Cine del Rey, posted a greeting to the president on its downtown marquee: “WELCOME TO MCALLEN 7TH SAFEST CITY IN AMERICA.”
U.S. Representative Henry Cuellar, whose district includes some of the areas Trump visited, provided charts in a news release to make the point that border cities tend to have lower crime rates than metro areas in other parts of the country.
“Portraying the southwest border as unsafe only serves to systematically hamper our region’s economic and community development,” Cuellar said. “There is no national emergency at the U.S.-Mexico border—the data is proof that the area is safe and open for business.”
U.S. Representative Will Hurd, a Texas Republican who is the only officeholding U.S. Representative of his party in the nine districts that touch the southern border, agreed. “First and foremost, if this is a crisis, then the people dealing with the crisis should be paid,” Hurd said in an interview on Morning Joe. He then pointed out that the country has seen an 87 percent decrease in border apprehensions since 2000. Apprehensions are typically the measure of how many people are illegally trying to enter the country. He called for using technology as a virtual wall along the border.
With members of his own party openly criticizing the president’s proposal, Trump is working hard to placate them, and his visit to Texas on Thursday is one manifestation of that effort. But business and community leaders fear the economic repercussions of Trump’s rhetoric. Members of the international media contingent on hand to greet the president had earlier been directed by White House officials to park their vehicles across the street in the parking lot of La Plaza Mall, a 1.2 million square foot mall that has long been one of Indiana-based Simon Property Group’s best performers as measured by sales per square foot—in great part because it’s a favorite shopping destination for customers from northern Mexico.
McAllen’s city manager reported in 2017 that sales tax from Mexican shoppers, which once accounted for nearly 37 percent of the city’s sales tax revenues, dropped significantly about the time Trump took office. In fairness, Mexican drug cartels have been acting up recently, but there was also a call by Jaime Rodriguez, then the governor of the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon, to boycott McAllen because of Trump’s election.
No, the president declared Tuesday night, the crisis he was here to confront had to do with the “thousands of illegal immigrants trying to enter our country.” The Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol sector is indeed the busiest region along the southern border in terms of apprehensions. But the president failed to note that, overall, apprehensions of immigrants illegally entering our country are down to about 500,000 annually from a high of more than 1.6 million annually in 2000.
Nevertheless, Trump is demanding more than $5 billion to fund the construction of his border wall, which has resulted in an impasse with Congressional Democrats and forced a partial shutdown of the federal government. His visit to Texas came on the twentieth day of a partial government shutdown. (The longest government shutdown on record, set by President Clinton and his fight with then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, lasted 21 days.)
While Trump’s visit commands a high profile and a now twenty-day government shutdown with no end in sight represents even higher stakes, many residents of South Texas have started to take these visits from Washington officials with a grain of salt. Vice President Mike Pence visited McAllen eleven months ago. Paul Ryan visited in 2017 when he was House Speaker, and myriad other members of Congress have stopped by for what some locals view as a routine photo opportunity next to the Rio Grande, typically at Anzalduas Park, where Trump went on Thursday.
“So the Republicans are going to come down and they’d go on a gunboat or a helicopter and they take photo ops in front of those. Then the Democrats come down, go to the detention center, get some photo ops with the kids,” said McAllen mayor Jim Darling. “Both do press conferences before they leave and go to Washington and not talk to each other. But those images are both negative to us.”
Locals have become so cynical of these visits that two Photoshopped images were circulating on social media in South Texas on Wednesday. One depicted Trump getting out of a limousine in front of a well-known local gentlemen’s club, while another depicted him stopping by Delia’s, a locally famous restaurant that makes tamales so delicious that they’re a favorite of Texas first lady Cecilia Abbott.
“I appreciate any president that would come down to the border,” said R. David Guerra, a retired bank president in McAllen. “What I cannot accept is any president or high-ranking official believing in all the misconceptions of the border and then writing that narrative for themselves as a basis for support from their core.”