MCALLEN, Texas — President Donald Trump made a three-hour visit to the Texas border Thursday – a trip that exposed the polarizing nature of his proposed border wall and the heightened emotions surrounding all sides of the immigration issue.
Hours before Air Force One touched down in McAllen, protesters and supporters began to assemble at a busy intersection near the airport.
A few miles north, in the heart of the city, Sister Normal Pimentel was working with asylum-seeking families at the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley Humanitarian Respite Center.
“Immigrants are not criminals,” she said. “Immigrants are people searching for an opportunity to be safe, to be protected.”
She said families tell her a wall wouldn’t stop them from crossing the border in search of safety. She was invited to a meeting with President Trump but wasn’t sure if she was going to have a chance to speak with him.
“I’ll let he spirit lead me,” she said, when asked what she would tell him.
The closer it got to the time Air Force One was expected to land, the larger and louder the crowds surrounding the airport grew.
“No border wall! No border wall!” shouted protesters. They were countered with chants of, “Four more years! Four more years!” from supporters on the other side of the street.
Jessica Croy was among the crowd rallying in favor of Trump and his policies. Her husband, a border patrol agent, might not get paid on Friday, but she still rallied in support of the wall and the shutdown, saying it’s a matter of safety and security.
“We don’t know when we’re going to get our next check but regardless of that, we need this wall,” she said. “No amount of money is going to replace my husband. If something happens to him, I don’t care about that paycheck, I want him to come home.”
Across a few lanes of traffic, Isidro Laeo, a veteran of the Marine Corps and a native of McAllen, said his hometown didn’t need a wall, and didn’t need what he called hate speech from the president.
“No place you go is perfect, but it’s not like Trump is saying -- it’s not a war zone,” he said. “It’s not like we’re being invaded by immigrant militias.”
After the president landed, his first stop was at a U.S. Border Patrol Office a couple of miles from the airport.
The White House invited many like-minded voices to take part in a discussion, including Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton.
Reggie Singh, the brother of a California police officer who was killed in the line of duty by an illegal immigrant was there as well. He received a standing ovation and a hug from President Trump after talking about losing his brother.
“No one should have to go through that on Christmas Day,” he said, adding that his family supported any measures that could prevent it from happening again.
From that meeting, Trump went to Anzalduas Park, a Hidalgo County park overlooking the Rio Grande River. He looked at gear used by the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol and did an interview with Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity.
After Trump left town, Senator John Cornyn and Senator Ted Cruz met with about a dozen local mayors from border towns.
All agreed there is not a one-sized-fits-all approach to border security. Many said they welcome additional security efforts, but a wall across the southern border would not be effective.
They also bemoaned the divisive rhetoric that they said makes the Rio Grande Valley seem like a dangerous place.
Cornyn expressed frustration with the shutdown, and said he hopes both sides will find room for compromise.
“We got elected to govern, we didn’t get elected to preside over a shutdown,” he said. “To me, that’s a failure of governance.”
After the meeting, Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez said he wasn’t sure if the president’s visit was going to change anything, but he hoped leaders in Washington would begin to think more about the local perspective and less about politics.
“This is a problem that may not have an ultimate solution,” he said. “But there are certainly better ways to handle it than the way we’re doing it now.”