New York Times
By Matt Flegenheimer
February 22, 2017
MISSION, Tex. — The visitor splashed by boat along the Rio Grande, straddling the rippling borderline, unseen in a procession of patrol vessels.
To the right of him, on the Texas side, sat a row of moldering barbecue equipment and a feral cat. To the left, the tall brush of Mexico swayed in a too-faint breeze.
Unlike most political trips to the border, including President Trump’s as a candidate, there was no phalanx of cameras trailing Speaker Paul D. Ryan on his first visit here. Reporters had not been allowed on the tour, and until Tuesday evening, Mr. Ryan’s office would not even confirm he was coming.
But by 12:30 p.m. on Wednesday, there he was: the congressional steward of Mr. Trump’s promised wall, wading through a narrow passage of the natural border, mostly undocumented.
The furtive visit came as the Trump administration set off this week to reshape the nation’s immigration policy, authorizing the expulsion of undocumented immigrants who have committed even minor offenses and making it easier to deport people immediately.
Yet the centerpiece of the president’s plans, the border wall that helped define his campaign, will rise or fall in places like this — a waterway where many experts believe a physical barrier is unwise — and with people like Mr. Ryan, who control the purse strings on Capitol Hill and have not always echoed Mr. Trump’s hard line.
Most congressional Republicans have been tugged into Mr. Trump’s thrall on border security, if they were not there already, with little outward complaint. At the party’s retreat in Philadelphia last month, lawmakers appeared primed to pay for a $12 billion to $15 billion border wall, although some estimates place the price tag billions higher.
In some corners of the Republican Party, Mr. Trump’s victory has instilled in lawmakers and operatives a renewed sense of swagger, defying predictions that the party was doomed to perpetual presidential disappointment as white voters became a smaller share of the electorate over time.
Over the long term, though, party strategists acknowledge that their problems with Hispanic voters have only deepened, as have their troubles with business leaders who rely on immigrant labor and remain committed to comprehensive immigration reform of the sort that died in Congress during the Obama years. Many Democrats agree, viewing Mr. Trump’s border push as a political loser that will energize the progressive base and entangle Republicans in a costly wall construction that the Mexican government, despite Mr. Trump’s longstanding pledge, is unlikely to fund.
Martha Sanchez, center, spoke during a protest across the street from a Department of Homeland Security processing station in McAllen, Tex. Credit Matthew Busch for The New York Times
In border towns like this, in a House district represented by a Democrat, Mr. Trump’s reign has become a galvanizing force for both sides. As Mr. Ryan prepared on Wednesday to meet with officials at a Department of Homeland Security building in McAllen, Tex., protesters waited to greet him across a highway. “Keep the kids, deport the racists,” one sign read. Quickly, a chant broke out: “Puentes, no muros.” Bridges, not walls.
Others expressed disappointment in Mr. Ryan, a politician they once viewed as moderate on immigration.
“At one time, I did think he was going to work for us,” said Gloria Rodriguez, 60, of Harlingen, Tex., recalling Mr. Ryan’s criticisms of Mr. Trump last year.
But behind her, across the highway, a truck driver had rolled down his window. “Donald Truuuuuuump!” he shouted, turning his head back as he rolled. “Yeahhhhhh!”
Mr. Ryan’s office said little about his visit beforehand and declined for several days to confirm a report by The Monitor of McAllen last week about his visit here. By late afternoon on Wednesday, aides confirmed the basics of Mr. Ryan’s day: a helicopter tour, a horse patrol demonstration, the boat ride, a stop at a United States Customs and Border Protection operating hub, and a meeting with local leaders.
“When you see with your own eyes the many challenges facing our law enforcement professionals along the border, it gives you even greater respect for the work that they do day in and day out,” Mr. Ryan said in a statement after the visit. “But more tools and more support are needed for them to do their jobs effectively. Congress is committed to securing the border and enforcing our laws, and together with the Trump administration, we will get this done.”
Mr. Ryan was joined by three Republican colleagues, including Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee. The speaker’s Twitter account capped the day with a photograph: Mr. Ryan in sunglasses and no tie, strapped into the helicopter, looking out on the Rio Grande Valley.
Though Mr. Ryan has said he supports the same immigration policies as the White House, he has often sounded more inclusive than Mr. Trump.
Confronted at a recent town-hall-style event on CNN by an undocumented immigrant protected from deportation under President Obama, Mr. Ryan sought to reassure her.
“If you’re worried about, you know, some deportation force coming, knocking on your door this year, don’t worry about that,” he said.
The priority, Mr. Ryan said then, was to “secure the border” and train enforcement efforts on “the people who are violent criminals, repeat offenders who keep coming back in.” The recent changes outlined by Mr. Trump’s Department of Homeland Security seem to extend well beyond this vision.
Separately, John F. Kelly, the homeland security secretary, has expressed skepticism in the past about the effectiveness of a border wall, telling senators at his confirmation hearing that a “physical barrier will not do the job.”
Some local officials who support heightening border security in their communities say the president’s tone can be unhelpful, crowding out nuanced discussion of the challenges they face.
“The reality and the political rhetoric are not hand and glove,” said Tony Martinez, the mayor of nearby Brownsville, Tex., who was part of the group that met with Mr. Ryan.
Mayor Jim Darling of McAllen, who also met with Mr. Ryan, said the president’s statements had adversely affected business in his city of more than 130,000.
“They were listening a lot. That was really nice,” he said of Mr. Ryan and his colleagues. “In some places, it probably makes some sense. A wall border to border doesn’t make any sense.”
The area has hosted other Republican visitors lately, including Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz of Texas, in separate trips, and a group of House Democrats.
“Now it’s real,” Mr. Darling said. “All the sudden, we’re doing immigration reform, in the form of the deportation process.”
Several Texas Republicans, including Representative Will Hurd, have been critical of Mr. Trump’s desired wall. Still, the president has his supporters in the region. Sergio Sanchez, chairman of the Republican Party of Hidalgo County, noted the president’s success in effectively refuting the Republican “autopsy report” after Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012. The document advised the party to embrace immigration policy changes as part of an effort to appeal to nonwhite constituencies.
“He’s taken the party kicking and screaming to areas that they never imagined they would be taken before,” Mr. Sanchez said. “It is what it is.”
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