LORENZO ZAZUETA-CASTRO AND MITCHELL FERMAN | STAFF WRITERS
President Trump is scheduled to visit McAllen on Thursday to address what he called the crisis at the southern border, which comes amid attempts to persuade the nation of the need for a border wall, the sticking point in negotiations with congressional Democrats that led to a government shutdown.
The logistics of Trump’s trip were unclear, but he plans to land in McAllen on Thursday, according to three people familiar with the visit. After the White House announced Monday that Trump will travel to the southwest border this week and a Federal Aviation Administration notice indicated a high-profile visitor will be in South Texas, speculation centered on McAllen.
As of Monday afternoon, though, the city of McAllen had still not been told of the presidential visit taking place.
“We haven’t been officially notified but we’re preparing for the possibility of a visit,” McAllen Mayor Jim Darling said in an interview on Monday. “We hope the president visits the Valley and we certainly invite him to do so.”
The announcement was made Monday as the partial government shutdown rolls into its third week. Planned just days after Trump is due to address the nation on the “humanitarian and national security crisis” on the southern border, the announcement comes as the stalemate over border wall funding leaves several federal agencies closed, and thousands of government employees without pay.
While the FAA alert, coupled with the White House announcement, raised speculation about a McAllen trip, the FAA issued a similar notice last week about a VIP visit in McAllen. Trump was scheduled to visit McAllen last Thursday, his motorcade was flown to the McAllen airport and Secret Service was in town, according to three people familiar with the visit, but the White House nixed the trip before it could happen.
President @realDonaldTrump will travel to the Southern border on Thursday to meet with those on the frontlines of the national security and humanitarian crisis. More details will be announced soon.
— Sarah Sanders (@PressSec) January 7, 2019
This week’s visit also comes only about a month from when border wall construction is due to begin in the Mission area, where contractors have been seen in the last months surveying land in anticipation of new construction that was funded in last year’s omnibus bill.
The omnibus bill passed in late March 2018, approving $1.57 billion for physical barriers and associated technology along the southwest border, including 90 miles of border wall system.
Those 90 miles combine all projects spanning the southwest border from San Diego to the Rio Grande Valley sector in Texas — 25 miles of new levee wall slated to be built along the Rio Grande and 8 miles of bollard wall in Starr County. This would close gaps along the border in the sector and is also part of the border wall project, CBP announced at the time of the bill’s passage.
In April 2018, Starr County officials confirmed that they met with government officials and were told during a meeting that the wall construction would begin east of the Fronton area and extend 5.5 miles into Escobares, but uncertainty remains regarding the downtown area.
In February of last year, a contract worth up to $100 million was published, soliciting vendors to bid on a project that included the construction of 3 miles of wall in Alamo, where the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge is located, as well as the “installation of fiber-optic cable, lighting systems and construction of an all-weather patrol road and enforcement zone,” the notice stated.
Despite plans to have that contract awarded in May, the refuge was spared during omnibus bill negotiations, essentially saving it from border wall construction.
Although Santa Ana was saved, many other environmentally sensitive areas will not be once construction begins, including La Lomita Chapel, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, and the National Butterfly Center, all in Mission.
I am pleased to inform you that I will Address the Nation on the Humanitarian and National Security crisis on our Southern Border. Tuesday night at 9:00 P.M. Eastern.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 7, 2019
The last high profile trip to the region was nearly a year ago, when Vice President Mike Pence toured the Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge, accompanied federal agents on a boat patrol and walked along a portion of the existing border wall in Hidalgo, where Pence was joined by Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-TX.
As reports of the potential visit swirled Monday, U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, reiterated the safety of border cities, and pushed back on the idea that the answer to national security was further border wall construction.
Instead, Gonzalez said hiring additional U.S. Border Patrol agents, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers, funding for technology and other elements would be more efficient than a physical barrier.
“…I would remind the president that there are 7,500 open positions with Customs and Border Protection that have not been filled, and that this should be their top priority,” Gonzalez said in a statement Monday. “With updated resources, technology and more border patrol agents, customs officers and agriculture inspectors, we can keep this nation prosperous and protect our citizens from those who wish to harm us.”
To drive his point home about the safety in McAllen, citing a 30-year low in crime rates, Gonzalez invited the president to get to know the city.
“It would be my hope that the president would come to this realization and put his calls for a physical barrier to rest. If the president does visit McAllen, Texas, he should feel free to walk around and support our local businesses — after all it is safer to walk around McAllen than it is D.C,” the congressman said.