McALLEN — The Rio Grande Valley served as a timely backdrop to several official visits over the past week. Politicians — Democrats and Republicans — were photographed on boats, bridges, helicopters and horseback.
Some officials strategically planted campaign signs regarding the border wall. Others visited specific areas because of what they’ve been pushing in Washington.
The first-time visitors can now say they came to the border, or “check a box,” as U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, said. McAllen Police Chief Victor Rodriguez echoed some of Vela’s message and said he’s, “tired of outsiders being selective about who they meet with and who they listen to when they come to the Rio Grande Valley.”
Many of the visitors fell into Rodriguez’s frustration. House Speaker Paul Ryan’s apparent goal for his inaugural Wednesday Valley visit was to learn about the area to make better-informed decisions.
However, Ryan already promised the GOP-led Congress would process President Donald Trump’s border wall budget request.
Someone more familiar with the border, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said just before his visit last week, which was independent of Ryan’s, that some of what Trump has said regarding the border, immigration and Mexico has been “not well informed.”
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, kicked off the flurry of visits Feb. 17 and found what he was looking for. After going on a night patrol with Customs and Border Protection where they encountered undocumented immigrants, Cruz immediately described them as young, tattooed men and linked them to a “gang affiliation” before details emerged as to whether that was the case.
Recently, the Texas Department of Public Safety raised its threat level to “elevated” as the result of potential danger from international terror organizations like ISIS and narcotics-trafficking Mexican cartels.
McAllen Mayor Jim Darling thinks that when Democrats visit the Valley, they should go on boat tours on the Rio Grande. And when Republicans visit, he thinks they should tour the detention centers.
Cruz did not tour a detention center. He went on the night patrol, met with local mayors and stakeholders, followed by a boat tour on the river.
Cornyn brought five Republican colleagues from the U.S. House and Senate to the Valley on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday mornings. They visited a detention center, stash house, the Pharr International Bridge, took a boat tour and met with local mayors.
The three non-Texas colleagues Cornyn brought had never been here before. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-NC, had been asking Cornyn to bring him down here, especially as they both serve on the Senate subcommittee on immigration.
Tillis has currently laid out a plan to overhaul immigration, which has tenets of policies both parties have pushed. The plan would aim to tighten border security as well as strictly enforce immigration laws while providing a protective legal status for the roughly 11 million immigrants now in the country illegally.
That plan was rolled out before his inaugural visit here last week. He talked on Monday about securing the border, followed by immigration reform that “makes sense.”
“The key part here is, members of Congress have to understand the unique challenges we have in different segments of the border,” Tillis said. “What we’re dealing with here in the Rio Grande Valley is different from what we’re dealing with in West Texas and New Mexico, different from Arizona, different from California.”
U.S. Rep. David Rouzer, R-NC, was part of Cornyn’s delegation and said his first visit here provided a lot of “texture” to the issues he often reads about.
“It’s like going from a black and white TV screen to 3D,” Rouzer said. “And there’s a lot of complexity, a lot of nuance.”
Upon returning to his home state, he told local media that he didn’t realized so much land on the border was owned by private citizens.
“Let’s assume that all of the private landowners wanted to have a wall,” Rouzer told a Wilmington, N.C., television station. “To go through there, cut down the brush and build the road that you need, and then to build the wall, would just be an enormous task because the terrain is not natural for that. But in some parts it can, and will, be done. I think you’re going to see Congress increase funding for all aspects (of border security) including building the wall.”
Many of the visitors were surprised that a fence, or wall, already exists for 670 miles of the roughly 1,900-mile border. In Hidalgo County, the drainage district built 20.26 miles of fence combined with a concrete levee barrier, paid for by the county and U.S. Homeland Security.
Ryan, who was already gung ho on a wall, spent less than 24 hours in the area on Wednesday. He toured the area by boat, helicopter and horseback, and met with local officials, though those officials said they were unsure if their message will stick with the speaker.
Protestors at Cruz’s event pleaded, “don’t just use our home as a photo op.” Ryan’s office released one photograph of him in the Valley, and it was of him on a helicopter looking down on the region.
Ryan visited the Border Patrol station and processing center on Military Highway in McAllen, where Democratic U.S. Reps. Vicente Gonzalez and Vela placed big campaign signs that said, “build bridges, not walls.”
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-MO, visited unannounced earlier in the week. She met with local officials, went on a night patrol with Customs and Border Protection, similar to Cruz, toured the area by helicopter and boat and visited the Humanitarian Respite Center at Sacred Heart Church and the Border Patrol Station and processing center.
McCaskill said through a spokesperson that she now looks forward to working with congress and DHS to get Border Patrol better technology and “go after the drug cartels and gang violence in Central America so families and unaccompanied children are not making the dangerous journey to our southern border.”
She also told a television station in Kansas City after her Valley visit that a border wall doesn’t make much sense.
“I believe we can spend that money more wisely and more effectively in terms of stopping illegals from coming across the border in the first place,” McCaskill said.
Many locally are now playing a “wait and see” approach to see if their messages resonate with the visitors.