LAREDO — Amid all the heated rhetoric being directed at the country's southern border, the scene Thursday on one of this city’s main bridges linking Texas and Mexico was unexpected.
Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, who has drawn national attention in part for his early and enthusiastic support for President Trump, donned a suede jacket made in Mexico, complete with gold embroidery and tassels. Then, while flanked by the Mexican and U.S. flags, Miller spun around to show off the garment for Mexican and American journalists before promptly embracing the man who had given it to him: Francisco Garcia Cabeza de Vaca, the Texas-born governor of the Mexican state of Tamaulipas.
“We’ve already developed a great relationship, even before he was sworn in,” Miller said of Garcia Cabeza de Vaca. “So it’s good to see you again, my friend.”
The event was part of a scheduled “Friendship Exchange” that Miller’s office said was the first high-level meeting between two top Texas and Mexican leaders on the international bridge since 2000. It came the same day Trump's Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, visited Mexico City, reportedly seeking to soothe tensions between the two countries over the Trump administration's recent expansion of its deportation efforts.
Miller, who has long advocated for securing the border, similarly appeared to stress the importance of both Texas and the United States maintaining a strong relationship with Mexico, using language Thursday that suggested he was not fully on board with some of President Trump's most high-profile positions.
“If we’re going to build a wall, Mexico needs some input on that. We don’t want to just build it and not know what the consequences are,” he told the Tribune. “We want input, we need to be educated and we need collaboration working together. And we need cooperation to go in. I don’t mind saying that.”
Miller went one step further, saying the president also benefits from immigrant labor and that he believed the current system needed to be reworked to allow for low-skilled labor to work in the country legally.
“I don’t want to cut off all migrant workers. It’s just not going to work for agriculture,” he said. “It’s part of our workforce, and Donald Trump uses the same workforce in his businesses. He has groundskeepers and landscapers and custodians and maids in his hotels and cooks and dishwashers — a lot of those are migrant workers.”
But Miller also said he thinks that Trump's latest orders on immigration have been overblown by the president's opponents. He insisted that Trump's plan is to target people in the country committing crimes and not otherwise people in the country who are law-abiding.
"He's never really said he wants to round up good and honest, hard-working people and throw them out of the country and throw our industries in chaos," he said. "I think the opposition tries to make that the issue. I don't think it is."
Miller's comments Thursday followed his earlier support of reworking the North American Free Trade Agreement after Trump promised on the campaign trail to eliminate or renegotiate the decades-old agreement. That drew ire from several border officials on both sides of the Rio Grande; the Laredo and El Paso customs districts are the country’s top two inland ports, trading billions with Mexico annually.
Asked if he’s softened his tone on immigration or NAFTA, Miller said he hasn't but also thought it important to avoid moving unilaterally without including Mexican officials.
Miller, who was passed over for the job of agriculture secretary in Trump’s Cabinet, added that he and Garcia Cabeza de Vaca intend to press Trump and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto to visit the Texas-Nuevo Laredo border to see firsthand what the intricacies of the region are.
“It looks different when you’re here in Laredo than it does from Mexico City or Washington, D.C.,” he said.
During a closed-door meeting, Miller, Garcia Cabeza de Vaca and several trade and agriculture experts discussed everything from citrus trees in Mexico and the cattle trade in Texas to the eradication of the boll weevil.
Before the meeting, Garcia Cabeza de Vaca, whom Miller gave a cowboy hat made by the American Hat Company in Bowie, Texas, called Miller his “new friend.”
“We’re grateful to be here on a day that’s so important to both states and both countries,” he said. “Texas and Tamaulipas are working together.”
When asked about the prospects of the border wall, which the Trump administration ordered the Department of Homeland Security to study more thoroughly this week, the Mexican governor said that is something that they’ll have to look at more closer when and if American officials make a final decision on it.
“What I am convinced can be built is a better relationship, better communication between people in governments at the state level the way we are doing between Texas and Tamaulipas, where we have 17 border crossings and a billion dollars in trade every day,” he said.