Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz is well known for his fiery rhetoric around border security and his staunch support of tightening immigration laws — messages he's spreading across Iowa and New Hampshire as he considers a presidential bid.
Despite those calling cards, the state's first Hispanic U.S. senator has only made three trips to communities along the Texas-Mexico border since taking office more than two years ago, his staff confirms. By comparison, Republican Sen. John Cornyn, the state's senior senator, has made 13 trips to the border in the same time period, his office says.
Critics say it's insincere for Cruz to rely on border security and immigration in his stump speeches — and benefit from them politically — without having spent more time on the border. Some officials in the region say that with more firsthand experience there, Cruz could develop better solutions for the problems that he decries in Washington.
Catherine Frazier, a spokeswoman for Cruz, said the senator has been hard at work in Congress keeping his promise to Texans to secure the border and promote legal immigration. He also has a regional director based in the Rio Grande Valley and is in regular communication with staff and local leaders there, she added.
"Not only is the senator profoundly familiar with the day-to-day challenges in the border region, but [he] has fought at every turn in Washington to hold the federal government accountable for its failure, stop the president’s illegal executive amnesty, and present solutions to fix our broken immigration system and champion legal immigration,” Frazier wrote in an email.
But local leaders say they'd still like Cruz and other elected officials to spend more time on the border. Steve Ahlenius, president and CEO of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce, said border communities are used to politicians like Cruz “parachuting” in and using the border as a “red-meat issue.”
“They don’t come in with viable solutions that really kind of take into account the feedback, comments and ideas coming from the local area, as opposed to what they think someone in Iowa is going to want to hear,” Ahlenius said. “To me it’s just a missed opportunity.”
The McAllen Chamber has invited Cruz to visit three separate times since he took office and has been turned down each time, Ahlenius said. But Cruz did travel to McAllen in July, amid a surge of unaccompanied Central American children illegally entering the U.S. On that trip, he toured a Customs and Border Patrol facility housing some of the children.
Cruz traveled to the border on two other occasions. In April 2014, he made a two-day trip to Harlingen and Laredo. His first trip to the border was in September 2013; he spent a day in the Rio Grande Valley and a day in El Paso.
Richard Dayoub, president of the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce, said his group hosted the senator during that 2013 trip, but hopes to further inform Cruz of what life on the border is like.
“We are always hopeful that we can reach out to our elected leaders who maybe haven’t made the time to get to know the border,” Dayoub said, adding that his chamber works closely and meets regularly with Cruz’s staff in San Antonio. “But nothing compares to the actual first-hand experience.”
Cruz has blamed President Obama’s immigration policies for acting as magnets for undocumented border-crossers. He says they send the message that children who enter the country illegally will not be deported.
Cruz has tried to block the application of Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, which allows some undocumented immigrants who entered the country as minors to defer deportation for renewable two-year terms. And when Obama took executive action in November to give millions of undocumented immigrants a work permit and temporary relief from deportation, Cruz called the policy "illegal and unconstitutional executive amnesty."
He has also called for increasing security along the border by tripling the size of the border patrol. And he’s made clear he will not support comprehensive federal immigration reform until the U.S. establishes “100 percent operational control” of the border.
Cornyn has been a far more frequent visitor to the border, including a trip to Ciudad Juárez, the Mexican city across the border from El Paso. His most recent trip was last month, when he spent two days in Laredo after being named "Mr. South Texas" by the Washington’s Birthday Celebration Association in Laredo, an honor bestowed on someone who has made “a significant and lasting contribution to the growth and development” of South Texas.
Cornyn has not taken as hard of a line on immigration as Cruz has. He has said he is supportive of reform, though he believes it may be more easily accomplished in “smaller pieces.” His campaign has also made some inroads with the immigrant community in Texas, working to diversify the GOP base by attending neighborhood gatherings in Hispanic and black communities and partnering on particular issues with groups like the League of United Latin American Citizens, a Hispanic civil rights group.
Political observers say Cruz's positions on immigration and border security add a degree of difficulty for Texas Republicans seeking to make inroads with Latinos. His infrequent visits to the border — considered the bluest part of deep-red Texas — could further complicate those efforts, said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Brownsville.
“What he has said has appealed to a lot of people in Texas, particularly in places that are far away from the border,” Correa-Cabrera said.
But she added that Cruz's messages, particularly on border security, are not as well-received on the border, where he "doesn’t have the sense of security that people that live on the border have."
Cruz has at times polled well among Texas Hispanics. Ahead of his 2012 U.S. Senate election, he was outperforming GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, with support from 35 percent of Hispanic voters, according to a Latino Decisions poll.
But a November Latino Decisions poll found that 48 percent of Texas Latino voters had an unfavorable opinion of Cruz.
Ruben Villarreal, the Republican mayor of largely Democratic Rio Grande City, remains optimistic about Cruz’s chances among Hispanics.
Villarreal conceded that Cruz does not have the “greatest track record” of connecting with the Rio Grande Valley “in a first-hand way.” But because the senator and his staff are receptive to local leaders' concerns, Villarreal said Cruz is "headed in the right direction" when it comes to making inroads in the region.
“It’s never too late to reconnect or connect with communities along the border,” Villarreal said. “I would’ve like to have seen it earlier, but if it's done in a timely fashion from this point forward, I see it as a benefit.”