I recently spent several days on the Texas borderland in McAllen and surrounding communities. For those readers who have not visited the Rio Grande Valley, I encourage you to do so. Hundreds of thousands of Americans — “snowbirds” or “winter Texans” — migrate to the southernmost border of Texas every year to winter there. They escape the ice of the North to enjoy the temperate climate, South Texas culture, migrating birds, Mexican food and great outdoor opportunities along the winding Rio Grande. They also enjoy the ability to cross into Mexico to receive inexpensive medical services such as dentistry.
I crossed the border at Progreso in Hidalgo County and met Texans who visited frequently to shop, dine or attend to other needs. I spent time on Texas A&M’s newly built McAllen campus with its vice provost discussing the need for higher education in the Valley with its burgeoning student population. I spent time with the founder of Idea Public Schools, tuition-free, Pre-K-12 public charter schools which populate the Valley. Note: 100 percent of the graduates of these schools over the past 10 years have been accepted into four-year universities. Some of the children who attend these schools cross the border daily from Mexico.
In short, folks who really don’t know the border should know this at the outset: The Rio Grande Valley is one of the jewels of Texas. It’s a terrific place to live, work and visit. Yet from the president’s rhetoric, from the time he descended the elevator of his tower to announce his presidential campaign till last week’s readily staged photo op in McAllen, you’d think Americans would be flat crazy to live in or travel to the Texas border.
There is, of course, a genuine humanitarian crisis at the border. And President Trump has worsened it. It’s a scandal in which Congressman Bill Flores, Senator Ted Cruz and Senator John Cornyn are fully complicit. Trump’s most recent strategy was to shut down our government and hold 800,000 innocent federal workers hostage in his bid to force U.S. taxpayers to fund his wall. His strategy was taking a clear humanitarian crisis fueled by instability and violence in Central America — causing desperate mothers and children to seek asylum — and making it all worse: stripping migrant children from their parents, detaining children and adults in cages and placing refugees seeking safety in deplorable and dangerous conditions indefinitely. Children have now died in Trump custody for lack of medical care. Children have been teargassed.
Republicans in Congress dutifully aid and abet Trump’s passion to exaggerate facts, create chaos and impede solutions. Flores, who represents Waco, issued a typical statement: “The president has put forward a common-sense proposal to follow through on border security and Congress could pass it in hours if it would put American families ahead of politics. This proposal includes enhanced border security, increased law enforcement and border patrol, increased numbers of immigration judge resources, provides more detention beds, strengthens counter-narcotics technology and provides for additional humanitarian needs. I remain committed to supporting solutions that provide the resources needed to keep hardworking American families safe.”
As a reminder, Trump’s 2016 campaign promise — made while he and supporters were labeling his Democratic opponent a liar — was to build a border wall funded by Mexico. For two long years afterward, Republicans in charge of Capitol Hill could or would not give him his coveted prize. Now Trump demands $5.7 billion from the American taxpayer to fund a wall that poll after poll shows most Americans — including the mayors and county judges of Texas border cities — do not want. One wonders why Congressman Flores calls this “common sense.” Was it common sense to send U.S. troops to the border just before the 2018 midterms to stop unarmed migrant women and children? Were they a threat to our Texans on the border?
During my stay in McAllen, I met with Mayor Jim Darling, a Baylor University graduate (BA,’76; JD,’78). McAllen is about the same size as Waco. If we’re interested in actual facts — increasingly elusive these days — then it’s relevant to consider those close to the situation and not the leader of the Republican Party who even Fox News recently called out as a liar on border issues. Mayor Darling’s words matter because he knows the region, its assets, its dangers: “A wall is really not the effective way to protect our border.”
McAllen has a strong economic relationship with Reynosa, its sister city across the Rio Grande, and Mayor Darling is concerned a wall would make it difficult for residents of both cities to continue this vital international commerce. Darling was among those who met with the president Thursday as part of a group known as the Texas Border Coalition — mayors, county judges and business leaders focused on issues impacting border quality of life for more than 2.5 million people.
Julie Hillrichs, spokeswoman for the group, says: “We have never supported the wall. The Border Coalition has consistently over the years stated we believe the wall is a wasted investment.” The coalition says the best way to increase security at the border is increased investment in legal ports of entry. However, like so many Americans who don’t know the border first-hand, the president wasn’t interested in listening to these elected and appointed officials who live and work on the Texas borderland, including many property owners fearful of the government’s seizing their land.
During a separate roundtable discussion with Sens. Cornyn and Cruz at Anzalduas International Bridge in nearby Mission — one the president did not attend — mayors and county judges not only urged greater funding of infrastructure at international ports of entry but also “requested that the inaccurate portrayal of their region as violent and in crisis be stopped.” They expressed disappointment the president was not interested in their perspective. The president instead met with border law enforcement officials at a Border Patrol station in McAllen.
Consider Sister Norma Pimentel of the Rio Grande Valley Humanitarian Respite Center. A celebrated figure in the Valley and a sister of the Missionaries of Jesus, she symbolizes the strong Christian faith in this misunderstood region. She sees little of the criminal element Trump loudly decries. Rather, she sees families fleeing the violence of failed states and seeking sanctuary in a nation touted as Christian by so many citizens. Invited to the president’s own stage-managed roundtable discussion, Sister Norma quickly found herself little more than a political prop.
Congressman Flores blames Democrats for the government shutdown. He says Democrats are unwilling to compromise and “they just want to make the president look bad.” But many of us in Central Texas not only think the shutdown makes this president look bad, it also makes our congressman look bad. His job is to keep government working for us. His job is to pass the laws that fund our government. His job is to pass laws that protect our border in common-sense ways. He should listen to Texas mayors on the border. He should listen to fellow Republicans representing the Texas borderland. Surely that’s preferable to aiding and abetting a president intent on violating U.S. and international laws related to refugees.
History will harshly judge Trump and those Republicans who blindly supported him in this societal travesty. Mexicans wouldn’t pay for his wall, so Trump made a humanitarian crisis even worse. He sent troops to aggravate matters just before the 2018 midterm elections. Yet he lost the midterms by a landslide. Still no wall. So he shut down the U.S. government to get his way. But U.S. citizens are not going to pay for his wall. So what’s next? Trump contemplates declaring a national emergency and using military funds and personnel — and maybe even raiding relief funds allocated but not yet obligated to rebuild the hurricane-ravaged Texas coast — to erect his iconic wall.
And this is common sense?