By Philip Rucker / The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — After abruptly walking out of budget negotiations with Democrats to end the government shutdown, President Donald Trump on Thursday is taking his case for building a wall to the U.S-Mexico border, where he claims illegal crossings have created a humanitarian and security crisis.
Trump is scheduled to arrive early Thursday afternoon in McAllen, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley, one of the busiest regions of the southern border and the epicenter of his administration’s controversial family separations.
The president is set to visit a U.S. Border Patrol station for a roundtable on immigration and border security then head to tour along the Rio Grande, where he will receive a security briefing. Trump also will sit for an interview at the border with Fox News Channel host Sean Hannity, one of the president’s friends and outside advisers.
Trump privately has raised doubts about whether his photo op appearance in Texas will prove persuasive for members of Congress, who three weeks into a partial government shutdown remain dug in deeply divided over the merits and indeed morality of a border wall.
Talks to reopen the government at a stalemate as the shutdown nears its fourth week and thousands of furloughed federal workers go without pay. Trump stormed out of a negotiating session on Wednesday, saying “Bye-bye” after Democratic leaders said they would refuse to give him the $5.7 billion he is seeking to build the wall.
Trump’s visit to the southern border is orchestrated to convey urgency about building a wall and comes as the president is weighing whether to declare a national emergency at the border — a risky move that would trigger executive powers for him to construct the wall without congressional approval but also invite court challenges and political blowback.
“I think we might work a deal, and if we don’t, I may go that route,” Trump told reporters Wednesday at the White House. “I have the absolute right to do national emergency if I want.” He added, “My threshold will be if I can’t make a deal with people that are unreasonable.”
Talks later that day with congressional leaders ended in acrimony. Trump asked Democrats if they would later support funding a wall if he were to quickly reopen the government, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said no, and the president walked out of the room.
“It wasn’t even a high-stakes negotiation,” Pelosi said. “It was a petulant president of the United States, a person who would say, ‘I’ll keep government shut down for weeks, months or years unless I get my way.’”
Trump for his part called the meeting “a total waste of time,” adding on Twitter, “I said bye-bye, nothing else works!”
Trump has sought to build public momentum all week for the wall, a signature campaign promise that went unfulfilled during his first two years in office, a period when Republicans had the majority in both houses of Congress.
With Democrats now in control the House, the opposition party is unified and emboldened to stop Trump from building a wall, which he long proposed as made of concrete but now says he envisions as a barrier built of steel slats.
“We need a barrier to stop the human traffickers and the drug trade, and to stop all of the big problems that come, including gangs,” Trump said Wednesday during a visit to the Capitol to meet with Senate Republicans. “They don’t come through your checkpoints; they come through areas where you have hundreds of miles without walls and without barriers, or without strong fences.”
In a Tuesday night Oval Office address to the nation, Trump said the situation at the border had reached crisis proportions, describing murder, rape and even beheadings by illegal immigrants. But immigration experts said he was exaggerating the situation, and Democrats accused him of fearmongering and of manufacturing a crisis to build his promised wall.
But Trump is unlikely to see death and destruction firsthand in McAllen, a city of about 140,000. Democratic Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, who represents the area, said McAllen has been experiencing some of the lowest crime rates in 30 years. He faulted Trump for not doing enough on border security under existing laws, including filing some 7,500 vacancies with the Customs and Border Protection.
“It would be my hope that the president would come to this realization and put his calls for a physical barrier to rest,” Gonzalez wrote in a statement. During his visit to McAllen, Gonzalez added, “he should feel free to walk around and support our local businesses. After all, it is safer to walk around McAllen than it is D.C.”
But McAllen has become a focal point in the debate over immigration.
Over the past decade, it and the surrounding Rio Grande Valley have become the busiest place along the U.S.-Mexico border for illegal crossings, and a place where U.S. authorities have struggled to cope with a migration shift from single adults to families, teens and children.
Trump’s first stop Thursday will be the McAllen Border Patrol station. Its holding cells became so overcrowded during a 2014 crisis that the government purchased a nearby warehouse, converting it into a designated processing center for families and children.
Trump is not planning to visit that facility, whose chain-link detention pens were likened to cages during the president’s “zero-tolerance” crackdown last spring, when the government separated thousands of migrant children from their parents until public outcry forced the White House to stop.
The president’s itinerary Thursday will also take him to the Rio Grande, and the winding river banks where the Trump administration’s border wall plan would add dozens of miles of fencing. Because of the river’s meandering course, the barriers would be built primarily along flood levees, potentially leaving private farms and ranches in a no man’s land between the wall and the border.
Large tracts of private property would need to be acquired by the government to create space for the wall and service roads, driving up construction costs, and several local farmers and ranchers in the McAllen area say they will challenge the administration’s plan in court.
This will be Trump’s second trip to the U.S.-Mexico border as president. Last year, he traveled to the San Diego area, where he viewed wall prototypes. First lady Melania Trump traveled to the McAllen area last year amid the family-separations crisis to visit migrant children at a border shelter.