(CN) — Escaping the heat of an impending impeachment vote, President Trump traveled to South Texas on Tuesday to tout his administration's immigration policy reforms against the backdrop of the border wall.
In one of his first public appearances since Jan. 6, when dozens of his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol and interrupted the Senate's count of electoral votes after he delivered a speech claiming the election was rigged, Trump returned Tuesday to the main plank from which he launched his presidential campaign in June 2015. "We are going to secure the border,” he promised then.
Speaking at a podium on a stretch of wall-abutting road stripped of all vegetation in the small town of Alamo, Trump said, “They said it couldn't be done and we got it done, one of the largest infrastructure projects in the history of our country.”
He heaped praise on Border Patrol agents in the audience and joked they have no excuses because the wall was designed based on their recommendations, including a “climb plate” at the top to prevent people from scaling it.
“It's steel. It's concrete inside the steel and then it's rebar, a lot of heavy rebar inside the concrete. And it's as strong as you're going to get, as strong as you can have. But we gave you 100% of what you wanted,” Trump said.
The president’s choice of the Rio Grande Valley for his farewell tour angered Texas Democrats who say he should be focusing on the pandemic.
“Rather than having empathy for the people of South Texas who are suffering from this Covid-19 virus like no other section of the United States, he comes to South Texas to brag about a border wall that no one wants,” said Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilbert Hinojosa.
Even with the wall going up in their backyards, Trump did surprisingly well in the November election with Hispanic residents of South Texas, who have historically supported Democrats. They helped him carry the state.
Wall construction has surpassed Trump's goal of building more than 450 miles of it, though 82% has replaced existing barriers, according to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection status report.
Trump has secured around $15 billion for wall construction during his presidency, including over $6 billion diverted from the Defense Department's coffers through the declaration of a national emergency after Congress refused his request for $5 billion for the project. He has also waived numerous environmental regulations to speed the build.
Critics say in the Trump administration’s rush to build the wall, government contractors have razed ecologically unique habitats in national wildlife refuges and defiled Native American sacred sites. The wall has gone up across wildlife corridors, boxing in ocelots, jaguars, wolves and deer accustomed to roaming freely in the border lands.
Contractors are reportedly working night and day on the wall in Texas' Rio Grande Valley, the Border Patrol's busiest sector for arrests of undocumented immigrants. The Rio Grande is the border between Texas and Mexico.
But the construction process has been slower in Texas than in Arizona and other areas because most of the land on the Rio Grande is privately owned, so the government has to file eminent domain lawsuits, which can take years to resolve, to get the property.
Trump talked about those efforts Tuesday while criticizing his predecessors in the Oval Office for not getting more wall built.
“It wasn't easy getting it built, getting it financed was even tougher, all the different chains of title and all the different things we had to go through,” he said. “But unlike those who came before me, I kept my promises and today we celebrate a milestone, completion of 450 miles of border wall.”
While President-elect Joe Biden has promised not another foot of wall will be built after he is sworn in Jan. 20, CBP Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan recently said the agency plans to award new contracts for 300 miles of new barriers before Jan. 19. It’s unclear if Biden will be able to cancel those contracts.
Biden could be tested on immigration in the first weeks of his presidency as Hondurans, many whose homes were destroyed by two hurricanes late last year, are reportedly joining up to travel en masse to the United States with hopes Biden’s more lenient policies will allow them to gain footholds in America.
Guatemalan and Honduran military officials have vowed to stop them from heading north, and those who have reached Mexico’s southern border are being rebuffed by Mexican soldiers.
Trump warned Biden on Tuesday not to roll back his immigration policy changes.
"If our border security measures are reversed it will trigger a tidal wave of immigration, waves like you've never seen before,” he said. “They are coming because they think it's going to be a gravy train at the end.”
He said immigrant smugglers are preparing to surge the border if his policies are removed. “This is an entirely preventable tragedy. It's waiting to happen,” he added.
Trump also highlighted his administration’s whirlwind of immigration rule changes.
He made it harder to qualify for asylum, implemented a program called the Migrant Protection Protocols that forces immigrants to wait in Mexico while their asylum claims are adjudicated, and used the pandemic as grounds to suspend processing of visa services at all U.S. embassies and consulates, and to immediately expel thousands, including unaccompanied children, at the Southwest border without giving them a chance to ask for asylum.
The president’s border visit comes as House Democrats are preparing to vote on a resolution later today in which they will ask Vice President Mike Pence and Trump’s cabinet members to declare him unfit for office, a process established by the 25th Amendment.
House Democrats are also planning to vote Wednesday on an article of impeachment charging Trump with incitement of insurrection for telling his supporters the election was stolen in a speech before some of them broke into the U.S. Capitol.
“If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore,” he said before the deadly riot.
Trump is expected to be the first president in U.S. history to be impeached twice.
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