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Rio Grande Valley officials welcome federal lawmakers' visits but keep expectations low

Local leaders say the many members of Congress who have visited the region recently won't glean a clear perspective of border life in a one-day visit.

The Texas-Mexico border fence near Donna.

MCALLEN — As constituents across the country lambast their members of Congress for declining to host town halls and face voters, the Rio Grande Valley has been inundated with federal lawmakers who want an up-close view of  the Texas-Mexico border.

Over the past week, the Senate's Texas delegation, Republicans John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, have been to the area in stops that came ahead of U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan's first-ever visit to the border Wednesday.

Cornyn on Monday was joined by several Republican congressmen: Sens. Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Dean Heller of Nevada, and Reps. John Carter of Round Rock, Mike Conaway of Midland and David Rouzer of North Carolina, according to the senator's office.

And on Friday, U.S. Reps Filemon Vela of Brownsville and Vicente Gonzalez of McAllen are scheduled to host fellow Democratic Reps. Beto O'Rourke of El Paso and John Larson of Connecticut on an international bridge here as part of a binational reception celebrating Mexican and American solidarity.

Local officials have welcomed the attention but have also been careful not to expect too much from lawmakers they say won't glean a clear perspective of border life in a short visit. That's especially true if they only come for photo ops and don't branch out to other parts of the community, said McAllen Mayor Jim Darling.

"They've got to do both," Darling said after a roundtable discussion on border commerce Vela and Gonzalez hosted earlier Wednesday. Darling later met with Ryan in a closed-door meeting also attended by the mayors of Harlingen and Brownsville and the Hidalgo and Cameron county judges.

"Rhetoric is never based on facts," he said. "One thing they always say to me is that they are surprised" when they visit the border.

Darling said a prime example is the image of a lawless region lawmakers came away with after a surge of migrants from Central America began pouring into Texas to escape from violence and corruption in their home countries. Since 2014, tens of thousands of immigrants have breached the border illegally though the Rio Grande Valley Sector of the U.S. Border Patrol.

"It was a humanitarian crisis; it wasn't a border crisis," Darling said. "So 70 percent of the new people coming across said 'We're here, we're not trying to avoid anyone.'"

Vela said his office was invited to join Ryan but said he took a "been there, done that" mentality when he found out the speaker was mainly going to talk with law enforcement officials.

"People in Washington [have] become so obsessed with border security when we got so much other stuff going on," Vela said. "That's a very myopic approach to the overall issue. If 90 percent of your day is all about border security, you're missing the boat."

Hours after Vela's roundtable, Ryan issued a statement that emphasized border security with an attached image of the speaker peering down from a helicopter as it conducted an air patrol near the Rio Grande River.

"When you see with your own eyes the many challenges facing our law enforcement professionals along the border, it gives you even greater respect for the work that they do day-in and day-out," he said in the statement. "But more tools and more support are needed for them to do their jobs effectively. Congress is committed to securing the border and enforcing our laws, and together with the Trump administration, we will get this done."

Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia said he appreciated the visit but knows the current-day political realities.

In an "ideal world," visiting lawmakers would spend more than one day in the area, he said. "But we've got to be realistic. The trip was [still] worthwhile."

In the limited time he had, Garcia said he tried his best to convince Ryan and other Republicans that Trump's plan for a "big, beautiful wall" isn't workable.

"We tried to be as clear as we could to make him aware," he said. "It's not a good idea, and it sends a horrible message."

Garcia instead advocated for additional monies that were appropriated in 2008 under the Border Infrastructure Improvement Act. That bill provided funding for fencing and levees on the border that can also double as a barrier to keep out unauthorized immigrants.

Though Garcia was skeptical about his message resonating with the White House, he did offer praise for one Republican he said understands the area more than most.

"I've been a lifelong Democrat," he said. "But I have a lot of regard for the work that Sen. Cornyn has done in the Valley."

Added Vela: "On many of these issues we talked about — for example, a border tax — I think Sen. Cornyn has a very good understanding about those things."

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