CRISTINA M. GARCIA AND BERENICE GARCIA | STAFF WRITERS
McALLEN — Stopped at a red light near La Plaza Mall, a driver blasted ‘God Bless the U.S.A.’ as President Donald Trump supporters and protesters awaited his arrival to the border.
Supporters, hoping to catch a glimpse of the first sitting president to visit the region in about 13 years, claimed spots near Wichita Avenue and 10th Street more than two hours before Air Force One landed at McAllen-Miller International Airport.
“I’m here to show support,” said 43-year-old Jessica Croy of Brownsville, the wife of a U.S. Border Patrol Agent, while holding a sign in favor of a border wall.
Meanwhile, Trump opponents set up across the street, holding signs in protest of the president’s promised border wall and pushed back on claims of a “security crisis along the southern border,” an assertion he made in a speech from the Oval Office two days prior to his visit.
“There’s no crisis,” said Michael Benavides, co-founder of Team Brownsville, a non-profit created to feed asylum seekers waiting to be allowed in to the United States at ports of entry. “There’s a humanitarian crisis on the bridge — people are hungry, they’ve been there for a very long time.”
Holding two small inflatable balloons depicting ‘Baby Trump’ in a diaper, Benavides said the situation on the bridge is “a nightmare” of the president’s creation.
“I wish he would come with us and feed them dinner,” he said. “They tell us their stories; they tell us why they’re fleeing their country.”
Protesters held a variety of printed and painted signs saying “end border militarization” and “we don’t want your wall.”
“The border totally rejects border walls. … His idea to wall off our home is going to be tremendously destructive, wasteful, expensive; it’ll drive people to their deaths and take people’s land, but it won’t provide any benefit whatsoever,” said Scott Nicol of the Sierra Club borderlands campaign.
While protesters outnumbered supporters to a small degree, some took the chance in commingling on either side.
As Trump made his way to McAllen, the federal government entered its 20th day of a partial shutdown, which has Republicans and Democrats at odds over funding to complete a wall along the country’s southern border. Trump has demanded $5.7 billion of wall funding, but members of the U.S. House of Representatives, controlled by Democrats as of Jan. 1, refuse to pass a bill to open the government that includes money for more wall.
“I’m supporting the wall … for our safety” said 30-year-old Marissa Delgado of McAllen, a city she believes is “somewhat safe.”
Delgado told reporters she experienced times where she has been afraid in McAllen. One instance took place at a local Academy store where a man she believed to be in the country illegally watched her and her children, she said.
“When you see somebody, you can tell if they’re a citizen or not,” Delgado, a graduate of Nikki Rowe High School said. “That’s just unfortunate the way the world goes.”
She also expressed difficulty identifying as a Trump supporter in the solidly blue Rio Grande Valley.
“Just as other people have beliefs, I respect that, but because I’m Republican and because I support the president, nobody seems to respect my stance,” Delgado said, standing in front of her 4-year-old and 9-year-old daughter, who missed school to be in attendance for Trump’s visit.
McAllen resident Cecilia Villagran, like Delgado, supports additional border wall construction and contends the city is “not necessarily safe” in some areas, such as the southern end, closer to the U.S.-Mexico border.
“You’re talking about miles and miles and miles of land, so in the city of McAllen I feel safe, but I live on the north side,” she said.
The city’s perception is one McAllen Mayor Jim Darling has protected as its been the focus of national attention in recent years.
“We’ve had politicians, Republicans and Democrat, come down for photo ops since 2014 … The Democrats would go to the detention center; Republicans would go on a river boat (on the Rio Grande),” Darling told CNN in an interview Wednesday, calling the subject of wall “political football.”
As Darling and Mission Mayor Armando O’Cana greeted the president on the airport tarmac, another group of protesters and supporters gathered in front of the U.S. Border Patrol station, Trump’s first stop on his visit.
A large ‘Baby Trump’ balloon flew over supporters and protesters alike, who lined Military Highway across from the station where Trump spoke to agents and their families.
Among the onlookers was Pharr City Commissioner Ricardo Medina.
“Anytime you have a president come to the Valley, it’s a great thing,” Medina said, expressing support for a border wall.
“I have several relatives that work in Border Patrol and they tell me it’s needed,” he said. “Not until you work with Border Patrol do you realize how bad it is; people don’t see it, that’s why they don’t think there’s any problems, but there is a problem.”
As some protesters chanted “lock him up” and supporters yelled back “build the wall,” a handful instead argued directly among themselves, unwilling to back down from their stances on immigration policy and the wall.
“They’re gonna send you back, and how are you going to get back,” a man holding an image of the Statue of Liberty asked a Trump supporter walking by.
Merrijo Bonds, a retired English teacher from Harlingen who now lives in McAllen, shook her head in disagreement.
Bonds, wearing a red Hidalgo County Republican Party T-shirt, occasionally turned her head toward the Border Patrol station, looking for the motorcade’s departure to Anzalduas International Bridge, Trump’s final stop on the border.
“I didn’t come here for excitement,” Bonds said. “I came here for support.”