Despite what Donald Trump’s campaign called “great danger,” the Republican presidential hopeful took his 757 on Thursday to the spot that has made his campaign among the most reviled, admired and remarked upon in recent memory: the U.S.-Mexico border.
In a spectacle marked by typical flourishes of bravado, Trump did not recant or apologize for branding most Mexicans who cross the border illegally rapists and drug traffickers.
He bragged that he had “thousands of Latinos working for me,” insisted that “the Latino vote will be very easy,” and declared that the U.S. Border Patrol was “petrified” because “I’m talking about what’s happening on the whole border.”
“There is great danger with the illegals, tremendous danger with illegals,” the real estate mogul, former reality television star and leading GOP presidential candidate said from a podium set up in a dusty lot next to the bridge checkpoint.
His border visit lasted less than an hour. “I have seen it here,” he proclaimed.
Many residents of Laredo, a city of 250,000 people whose huge Latino population elects mostly Democrats, stood in front of homes and businesses and outside the Landmark Aviation office at the Laredo International Airport. They snapped pictures and held signs saying, “Trump is a chump!” and “Trump’s hair is illegal.”
“He’s a smart man. He gets publicity, good or bad,” said Adolfo Gonzalez, 66, of Laredo, an Army veteran and retired high school teacher. “He’s just trying to get publicity coming to a place he’s not wanted.”
Gonzalez stood in a field next to the airport used by protesters, next to a woman shouting “Dump Trump!” through a megaphone, and predicted Trump’s rhetoric would damage his campaign in the long run.
“He’s getting more popular on the wrong side — Latinos are one of the fastest-growing populations in the country, so for him to be working against us will hurt him. It’s uniting the Latino population not to go out and vote for him,” he said.
Trump insisted the protesters “were chanting for me.”
His remarks about Mexicans crossing the border, made during his announcement speech last month, prompted many of his most prominent business partners to denounce him but propelled him into the lead in primary polls, to the consternation of establishment Republicans trying to broaden the party’s demographic appeal.
Last weekend, Trump drew broader condemnation from rivals and the Republican Party for questioning the heroism of Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who refused early release during more than five years of torture and captivity in a North Vietnam POW camp. “I like people who weren’t captured,” Trump told an Iowa audience.
To reach the border Thursday, Trump and his motorcade — accompanied by a police escort that shut down traffic — drove about 15 minutes south of the airport. Across the Rio Grande is its sister city of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, which has been plagued by drug cartel and gang violence. Laredo, Texas, is a bustling industrial hub west of the Rio Grande Valley, which was inundated last summer with immigrant families, mostly from Central America.
Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz stood by Trump during his news conference but did not endorse his rhetoric. He said the country needed better immigration enforcement as well as a comprehensive overhaul.
“We appreciate all the attention,” he said, reeling off some of the community’s business attributes.
Trump had been invited to meet with local Border Patrol union representatives, but the union, the National Border Patrol Council Local 2455, withdrew from the event — under pressure by superiors, the candidate said.
“There is a huge problem with the illegals coming through. In this section it’s a problem, and in other sections it’s a bigger problem,” Trump said, adding that he favors building a border wall “in certain sections.”
“The wall will save you a tremendous amount of money,” he said.
The National Border Patrol Council said in a statement it had requested the withdrawal because it did not want to appear to endorse Trump, whose comments about McCain “are disrespectful not just to the senator, but to all veterans, many of whom serve as Border Patrol agents.”
Some agents came to see Trump anyway. Luis Villegas, 28, of Laredo, an eight-year veteran, said Trump appreciated the challenges he faced.
“It’s frustrating, but every day we go to work and try to do our job,” Villegas said, adding that he couldn’t specify what constraints he faces. He said he had never attended a political event, but he likes Trump because he “sees the problems with illegals — that’s a problem we see.”
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry challenged Trump to “explain to the people of Laredo why he thinks they should be on the hook to secure our country’s border with Mexico, rather than the federal government” and “explain to the Hispanic Americans he meets why he thinks they are rapists and murderers.”
“It’s going to take more than a day trip for him to convince the American people he is anything but a hypocrite when it comes to border security,” Perry, a rival for the GOP presidential nomination, said in a statement.
Trump’s provocations have frustrated many in his party. He suggested in an interview with the Hill newspaper on Wednesday that he might run as an independent if he fails to secure the Republican nomination. On Thursday, he downplayed the possibility but did not back away from it.
“I’m Republican, I’m conservative. I’m in first place by a lot, it seems. I think I’ll get the nomination,” he said.
Hennessy-Fiske reported from Laredo and Bierman from Washington.