MERCEDES — There may have been a time when unity in Washington D.C. really did exist, but not since these two have been in office. Yet here they were, a Republican from Arkansas and a Democrat from South Texas, walking into the wind at an international water plant.
To help make the point, the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center organized the trip and sent some staff to accompany U.S. Reps. French Hill, R-Ark., and Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen. News about the release of hundreds of immigrants every day to border cities such as McAllen led to a meeting with Catholic Charities Executive Director Sister Norma Pimentel.
“She’s terrific,” Hill said at the International Boundary and Water Commission in Mercedes after meeting Pimentel.
The immigration conversation that has polarized the country came up frequently throughout the day on Friday, which featured seven stops throughout the day from the McAllen Chamber of Commerce to a meeting with Pimentel to tours with Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection officials — all in an effort by the Bipartisan Policy Center to build cross-aisle relationships between members of Congress.
The organization has matched up Democratic members with Republican members, and they’ll each visit each other’s districts. Now that Hill has toured the Rio Grande Valley, Gonzalez will visit Hill’s district in the Little Rock area. But unlike Arkansas, South Texas hosts frequent visits from members of Congress.
“Republicans come down and get a boat ride or helicopter ride with Border Patrol and Democrats go to a detention center or respite center and got a photo,” Gonzalez said, recalling the old refrain from McAllen Mayor Jim Darling who argues that each party visits the Valley only to see what they want.
“And we got to do both,” Gonzalez said.
They toured the Border Patrol’s processing center for immigrants and they went out with agents, Gonzalez said. They also toured the Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge where they discussed trade and travel at international bridges with CBP officials.
“It’s important to see both sides when you’re here,” Gonzalez said.
While immigration came up often — including at the Salvadoran consulate in downtown McAllen — the group also met with business leaders at the McAllen Chamber of Commerce. McAllen city commissioner Omar Quintanilla said it was a productive conversation and it was particularly notable that Hill was a Republican, since cross-party delegations aren’t common in the region.
“Let’s see how they vote once they’re back up there,” Quintanilla said.
Gonzalez said Hill is one of the most bipartisan members he’s been around since Gonzalez was elected in 2016. Hill was only elected two years before in 2014, but he has worked in Washington D.C. for years, including for Texans. Hill worked for President George H. W. Bush and for Republican U.S. Sen. John Tower.
“I saw how Sen. Tower worked with Lloyd Bentsen, and that’s how it should be,” Hill said.
As Congress’ approval rating sinks among the American public, Gonzalez said some bipartisan trips he’s taken with Republicans have resulted in strong friendships.
But do they impact votes in Congress?
“That’s a good question. I don’t know,” Gonzalez said, before thinking further about it. He then listed off a few Republican colleagues who have joined him on resolutions and other pieces of legislation.
“I guess it does help,” Gonzalez said.