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Trump visits Rio Grande Valley to push for US-Mexico border wall

JULIO CESAR AGUILAR / AFP | Picture of the Rio Bravo taken from the Reynosa-Hidalgo International bridge which connects the Mexican city of Reynosa, in Tamaulipas State (R), with the US city of Hidalgo, in Texas, on January 9, 2019.

US President Donald Trump heads to Texas on Thursday to push for the construction of a wall along the US border with Mexico, a central promise of his 2016 presidential campaign.

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As the partial government shutdown entered its 20th day, leaving hundreds of thousands of Americans out of work or working without pay, Trump has chosen to visit the border town of McAllen, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley.

Trump and his fellow Republicans are in a tense fight with Democrats over his demand for $5.7 billion to construct the barrier – which could be either “a wall or a steel fence”, according to the president. But the new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives has refused to grant that amount for what it has called a “medieval”, “immoral” and “ineffective” measure.

In response, Trump has threatened to declare a national emergency to get the wall built.

The US president is expected to arrive at McAllen Miller airport and “meet with those on the frontlines of the national security and humanitarian crisis”, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders tweeted on Monday.

The 3,141-km-long US-Mexican border has been a centrepiecein Trump’s fight against illegal immigration even before he came into office. The Rio Grande Valley area already hosts bits of a wall constructed by the Bush administration in 2008.

New construction

While visiting southern Texas, Trump is expected to spotlight his accomplishments, including a 40-km-long partial barrierthat will be built for $1.6 billion. Allocated by Congress in 2018, its funding was made possible at the cost of a previous government shutdown and difficult negotiations between lawmakers.

Construction is already under way. In early November, US Border Patrol announced a $145 million contract with Saudi company Sisco Ltd in order to build 9.6 kilometres of a barrier. Later that month another contract was announced, this time one for $3.7 million with Gideon Contracting.

According to AP, Trump still needs the funding to build 346 kilometres more, including 167 kilometres destined to complete the existing Rio Grande Valley barrier and another 88 kilometres in the Laredo area, also in the Valley.

The president is expected to use his visit to insist once again that undocumented immigrants and illegal drugs are streaming across the border from Mexico, posing a national security threat.

Illegal immigration at a 20-year low

Even though statistics show illegal immigration in the region is at a 20-year low and that many drug shipments enter the country through legal ports of entry, McAllen still holds a record for illegal entries and arrests in the country. According to Border Patrol data, 137,562 people were apprehended in the Rio Grande Valley and near McAllen from October 2017 to September 2018, the highest figure of any southern region and nearly half of the southwest border’s total. In November 2018, authorities arrested 23,000 families, nearly three times more than in November 2017.

In September 2018, border authorities issued a statement expressing their concern over a “constant flow” of people trying to cross into the United Statesin this area.

According to multiple sources, Trump may visit an area known as “Rincon Village”. Nearby Anzalduas Park announced it would remain closed on Thursday as activists also plan to demonstrate there.

It was at the McAllen Detention Centre where, in mid-2018, nearly 2,400 migrant children were confined, separated from their families as Trump rolled out his “zero-tolerance” policy. While images of children locked in cages shocked the world, three new facilities for underage migrants opened, in what activists said was an “inhumane” move.

US army troops also entered the southern city shortly before the midterm elections in what several critics said was a pre-election publicity stunt. With a temporary base in the city of Donna, they were ostensibly sent to prevent migrant caravans from entering US territory as Trump warned of a migrant “invasion”. According to local journalist Oscar Margain, the troops did nothing but place barbed wire along the border before taking it out and leaving on December 22.

Local aid workers have challenged the president’s view, saying the people crossing the border do not present the menace that Trump claims. In an open letter to Trump, Sister Norma Pimentel of Catholic Charities wrote, “Welcome to the border, Mr. President” and invited him to visit her Catholic Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen.

“Most families are exhausted and afraid, carrying little more than a few belongings in a plastic bag,” Pimentel wrote. “They come in all forms and at all ages. Few speak any English. Most are in great need of help.”

Activists groups, including environmental organisations, and locals are expected to demonstrate during the president’s visit. Efforts to build barriers in the past have prompted lawsuits from landowners along the border who stand to lose property.

“President Trump should meet with landowners, look them in the eye, and tell them why he wants to condemn their property for his border walls,” said Scott Nicol, a top environmentalist in the Rio Grande Valley. “If he is afraid to face up to the consequences of his actions he should stay in [his golf club at] Mar A Lago or Washington, DC.”

This article was translated by Henrique Valadares from the original in French.

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