WESLACO — Sen. John Cornyn both criticized and praised President Donald Trump while talking trade, the border wall, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and the recently passed tax-overhaul bill during a State of the Congress Address here Friday.
The current state of the North American Free Trade Agreement renegotiation, the Senate Majority Whip said, has him uneasy. Cornyn is also skeptical about parts of the proposed border wall, questioning parts of the $18 billion price Trump has tagged on the wall.
More optimistically, Cornyn lauded the recent passage of the tax-overhaul bill, which he said will bring 77,000 new jobs to Texas. And despite Trump saying this week that immigrants from El Salvador, Haiti and Africa descended from “s—-hole countries,” according to news reports, Cornyn was confident lawmakers will soon find a DACA solution.
But he enjoyed leaving Washington for Texas for the weekend, starting with a full day in the Rio Grande Valley on Friday.
“I come to share a bit of news from that hostile, forward operating base called Washington, D.C.,” he said during his address. “And when I come here, you promise to tell me what’s really going on.”
Border Patrol RGV Sector Chief Manuel Padilla and a handful of local officials briefed Cornyn at the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge, which the senior senator did not publicize. Cornyn and the officials met in a conference room tucked in a hallway inside the refuge’s visitor’s center.
Santa Ana workers said they were not made aware of any visit until officials showed up Friday afternoon. The current proposed border wall would cross three miles through the beginning of the refuge and likely cut off much of its more than 2,000 acres.
“I think he’s fairly reasonable on border issues,” said Bobby Villarreal of Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia’s office, who participated in the briefing. “We all gave him our opinions, the mayors — the border wall doesn’t make total sense, but technology, personnel, intelligence.”
McAllen Mayor Jim Darling, who was also on hand, said after the briefing they took a driving tour of the refuge and climbed up the observation tower, and saw “what a special piece of property it is.”
Darling said the consensus was that the refuge would likely be best served if security was ensured but a wall intersecting the property would probably not be best.
Cornyn posted an Instagram video Friday afternoon from atop the observation tower, which would not be accessible if the proposed wall is built. While he agreed with Trump that physical barriers are important in some areas along the border, technology and personnel are necessary as well. He also noted the care needed for the habitat and wildlife at the refuge.
The looming wall also brought more than 50 protesters outside Knapp Medical Center, where Cornyn gave his address.
“If John Cornyn would stand up on the floor of the senate and say, ‘I know border walls are useless, destructive, that they will require the waiving of environmental laws, and the taking of private property, and I oppose them,” said Scot Nicol, an executive board member of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club and co-chair of the Sierra Club Borderlands Campaign. “As the majority whip, and a senator from Texas, that would carry a lot of weight, and I think that would take a lot of wind out of the sails of border wall proponents. He’s not doing that, because he gets to sit in the select crew. He needs to be a public servant instead of being self-serving.”
NAFTA also has many in the Valley, which the treaty helped transform, concerned. Cornyn listed several positives international trade, and specifically NAFTA, have had on the region, state and country.
He’s a bit worried, too.
“I’m a little concerned that the U.S. Trade Representative that is negotiating this does not appreciate the difficulty of getting this approved if they achieve a negotiated outcome,” Cornyn said after his address. “Secondly, as was alluded, some of the rhetoric could inflame some of the passions in Mexico and cause them, perhaps, to be more likely to elect a president who’s not pro-America, not pro-NAFTA, and I think that would be an unforced error on our part.
While the United States could commit an “unforced error” in the Mexican presidential election, Mexico also might be dealing with Russian interference. U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, has requested a Congressional hearing investigating possible Russian meddling in July’s presidential election.
The candidate the Russians are likely aiding is two-time presidential runner-up and former Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Despite running a moderate government as mayor of Mexico’s capital, rivals describe Obrador, 64, as a dangerous radical, similar to the type of socialist governing that has ripped apart Venezuela.
Obrador is who Cornyn was referencing as “not pro-America, not pro-NAFTA.” Trump, at times, has also mentioned completely pulling out of NAFTA, which Cornyn strongly cautioned against.
Not only is a trade deal in the balance, but so are the lives of more than 800,000 DACA recipients. Cornyn is confident “we can, and we will, find a solution.”
“You’d have to have a pretty hard heart not to have sympathy for 124,000 DACA recipients in Texas alone,” he said. “They make a valuable contribution to our state.”
Before Cornyn concluded his day with a fundraiser hosted by IDEA Schools founder and CEO, Tom Torkelson, he was given an award after his address. As a “friend of the Valley” he received a loud applause and a standing ovation.
Now, after a full day of listening to “what’s really going on,” Cornyn can take his Valley feedback to “that hostile, forward operating base called Washington, D.C.”