McALLEN, Texas (CN) – In his first visit to the Texas-Mexico border Thursday, President Donald Trump was met with protests hours after he threatened to declare a national emergency to get funding for his signature campaign promise of a border wall.
But while he touted the “fantastic design” of his proposed barrier that he says will be “efficient and fast,” he now says he “obviously” didn’t mean that Mexico would pay for it, an assertion he repeated dozens of times during the 2016 campaign.
Trump’s visit to McAllen, about 25 miles north of Reynosa, Mexico, comes 20 days into a partial government shutdown that will be the longest on record if a deal with Democrats isn’t reached by Saturday. The Trump administration is demanding $5.7 billion to build what is now being pushed as “steel slats” along the southern border, including 104 miles in the Rio Grande Valley.
Trump said Thursday he would “probably” declare a national emergency to open up pre-existing funds to construct a border wall in some form if talks with Democrats break down. The move would likely trigger multiple legal challenges and raise questions about presidential overreach.
“I have the absolute right to declare a national emergency,” Trump told reporters before departing for McAllen. “If this doesn’t work out, probably I will do it, I would almost say definitely.”
McAllen, a border city of 143,000, has been particularly hit hard with the effects of Trump’s immigration policies. His administration’s child separation policy began overflowing local border patrol facilities, where hundreds of children were detained in cages over the summer.
But residents and local leaders fought back hard against the characterization of McAllen as a dangerous city at the center of what the White House maintains is a national security crisis.
When asked if she feels safe living in the Rio Grande Valley, Mayanin Casarez, a 36-year resident of the area said, “Oh hell yeah.”
“We do not need a wall,” said Casarez, who described herself as an immigrant and a military veteran. “His rhetoric about immigrants being killers, rapists, druggies is just totally out of context.
“To me he’s very offensive, he’s very offensive,” she added.
McAllen Mayor Jim Darling spent the days leading up to Trump’s visit conducting media interviews where he touted his city as among the safest in Texas.
According to an analysis on crime released by the city, violent crimes – including murders, rapes and robberies – dropped by 5.8 percent in 2017, and property crimes are down 12.3 percent when compared to the previous year.
Organizations including the Texas Civil Rights Project, League of United Latin American Citizens and American Federation of Government Employees held demonstrations in and around McAllen during Trump’s visit that drew several hundred protesters, and some Trump supporters. Clashes between the two sides resulted in at least two arrests even before Air Force One landed.
Chants of “no border wall” and “si se puede” – which means “yes we can” in English – were met with smaller but still active crowds replying “yes border wall,” many of whom wore red “Make America Great Again” hats and carried U.S. flags.
One self-described “huge Trump supporter,” JoAnn Bannworth, said that while she is in favor of Trump’s border wall, she still feels safe living along the Texas-Mexico border. Her family settled in the Rio Grande Valley in the early 1900s to grow citrus along the Rio Grande River, she said.
“I’ve lived in the Rio Grande Valley all my life,” Bannworth said. “Is it as safe as it used to be? No. But am I afraid? No, I’m not afraid.”
Outside the McAllen Miller International Airport where the majority of demonstrations were held, Astrid Dominguez, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas’ Border Rights Center, called on Congress to reject “Trump’s obsession” with building a wall along the Mexican border.
“Make no mistake, this crisis is one of the administration’s own making,” Dominguez told demonstrators through a megaphone. “The president is holding government workers hostage for a political stunt.”
Trump’s visit included a stop at a U.S. Border Patrol station in McAllen where he held a roundtable discussion with local leaders. Texas U.S. Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen also traveled with Trump to McAllen from Washington.
“This should’ve been taken care of 30 years ago, 20 years ago, 10 years ago,” Trump said at the roundtable about the wall.
“I hope that the Democrats get together and work on a problem that’s truly, it’s compassion, it’s everything, it’s also national security,” he said. “We’re under attack in a certain way.”
Sarah Flores in McAllen contributed to this report.