McALLEN — House Speaker Paul Ryan spent less than a day in the Rio Grande Valley learning about the area’s binational economy, immigration enforcement and border security issues before heading back to Washington, where pressure is mounting to create stricter policy.
Ryan’s first visit to the Valley included a tour of the U.S.-Mexico border by way of land, water, air and even horseback. He brought with him four other influential House Republican members — U.S. Reps. John Carter, R-Round Rock, Michael McCaul, R-Houston, Martha McSally, R-Ariz., and Kevin Brady, R-Conroe.
They toured the area and participated in talks with a variety of industry leaders from across the region, including the county judges from Starr, Hidalgo and Cameron counties, as well as the mayors from McAllen, Harlingen and Brownsville.
Sister Norma Pimentel, Bishop Daniel E. Flores and members of the healthcare and real estate communities also shared some of his time. But most of the delegation’s time was spent with law enforcement officials.
The Speaker’s visit began Wednesday morning and was shrouded by multiple security measures as the delegation took an aerial tour of the territory near the Rio Grande aboard two Customs and Border Protection Huey helicopters, a boat ride on a Border Patrol vessel and a horseback ride near Anzalduas Park.
“I was nervous,” McAllen Mayor Jim Darling said after meeting with the Republican delegation. “Not about meeting any of them, but because we’ve been dealing with the fallout of all this for two-and-a-half years, since early 2014.”
But now policies are being crafted.
“And it’s our home that will be affected, so you want them to get it right,” Darling said.
Leaders from across the community echoed the same sentiment. Ryan is a powerful figure in Washington and is third in line to the presidency. His presence drew protesters from two local advocacy groups — La Union del Pueblo Entero (LUPE) and A Resource in Serving Equality (ARISE).
About 100 members met outside the McAllen Border Patrol station to protest the rhetoric coming out of Washington.
Juanita Valdez Cox, LUPE executive director, stood before the protesters directly across the street from the Border Patrol station and referred to the Speaker as Trump’s right hand man.
“We have tried every which way for Paul Ryan to meet with the community, but he has refused,” Valdez-Cox said in Spanish. “The border community is not only Border Patrol and law enforcement. We are a community of diverse, tight-knit individuals who will not stand to be separated by a wall or by deportations.”
After several testimonials denouncing Trump, Ryan and the wall, Valdez-Cox and a small group of LUPE and ARISE members walked across the street and delivered a handwritten note to the deputy patrol agent in charge of the McAllen Border Patrol station, Xavier Rios, that read:
“The RGV community is outside waiting to speak with you. We are a peaceful non-violent community. Please give us a few minutes of your time.”
Rios kindly said he would deliver their message to Ryan who was inside meeting community leaders. McAllen Police was called to the scene and escorted the small group of protesters and media back across the street where they continued to protest until Ryan left the station and headed to a nearby immigrant detention center where a majority of immigrants apprehended at the border are transferred and processed.
Afterward, Ryan, Carter, McCaul and McSally boarded a caravan of unmarked SUVs and headed back to the McAllen airport.
Once there, Ryan could be seen taking photos with DPS officers and some of the security detail that escorted the lawmakers and officials around the Rio Grande Valley. He then skipped onto a private jet and departed about 4 p.m.
Leaders throughout the area have high hopes for the delegates to carry a positive message to Congress.
McAllen Police Chief Victor Rodriguez said Friday he is tired of outsiders being selective about who they meet with and who they listen to when they come to the Rio Grande Valley. He blamed politicians of taking advantage of the community for years and encouraged everyone to stand up.
“Our community should come first, and if every one of us took that stance we might start making a difference against all of these folks that ride in and ride out for a photo op,” Rodriguez said. “Because to them it’s about feel good legislation, it’s about checking the box and it’s about using us in the process, and frankly, I think it’s time that we stand up.”
Congressman Filemon Vela echoed Rodriguez, saying many of these politicians and officials who parachute into the Valley have helped demonize the border in an effort to push their own agendas.
“I like this Speaker, I know him, he’s a nice man,” Vela said. “But my fear is that the purpose of his visit next week is to check a box, go back to Washington and push his pro-border-wall, and pro-border-adjustment-tax, and anti-immigrant agenda when he gets back.”
After Ryan departed, his office released a statement that focused on only one issue versus the complexity of a thriving border region.
“When you see with your own eyes the many challenges facing our law enforcement professionals along the border, it gives you even greater respect for the work that they do day-in and day-out,” Ryan said in the statement. “But more tools and more support are needed for them to do their jobs effectively. Congress is committed to securing the border and enforcing our laws, and together with the Trump administration, we will get this done.”
Only time will tell what kind of impression the Valley left on Ryan and his republican colleagues. Darling said it was tough to tell whether the local message will resonate with the delegation.
“I don’t think they were surprised at anything,” the mayor said. “But the Bishop did a really good job talking about the human side of all this, which is obviously so important.”
Mfeman@themonitor.com, BereniceG@themonitor.com, Khernandez@themonitor.com, Nlopez@themonitor.com