In Texas border town, skepticism ahead of Trump visit to push wall

MCALLEN, Texas (Reuters) - The serene National Butterfly Center in Hidalgo County, Texas, occupies a 100-acre preserve steps away from the U.S.-Mexico line, where President Donald Trump is expected to visit on Thursday to push for a southern border wall.

But for Marianna Trevino-Wright, the center’s director, it is the barrier itself - not an influx of criminals - that poses the greatest risk to the sanctuary, given that current plans call for the wall to bisect its property.

“Why on earth would me and my husband live here, and work here, and rear six children here, if it wasn’t safe?” she said.

In McAllen, the county’s largest city, several officials and residents interviewed by Reuters expressed skepticism over Trump’s claim that a wall is required to end what he described as a “crisis” in an Oval Office address on Tuesday.

Seby Haddad, a commercial lender at a regional bank, said he watched this binational community grow for decades because of immigration, not in spite of it.

He rejected the notion that a border wall would help stem the flow of illicit drugs, noting that most narcotics are smuggled in vehicles at official checkpoints, according to government data.

“It doesn’t fix any problem,” said Haddad, 38. “It’s an archaic solution.”

Trump has partially shut down the federal government over his demand for a wall, a proposal that Democrats have rejected as immoral and ineffective. The prospects for a resolution remained dim on Wednesday, after congressional leaders met with Trump at the White House but made no progress.

In his televised remarks on Tuesday, Trump asserted that illegal immigrants and drugs were pouring across the Mexico border, putting American lives at risk. But government figures show that illegal crossings have dropped significantly since the 1990s and early 2000s.

FILE PHOTO: One of the prototypes of a border wall in Otay County, U.S., photographed through the border wall in Tijuana, Mexico, January 3, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

McAllen and the surrounding area is far from Trump Country – the three congressmen from the region are Democrats, as are all of the state senators and representatives.

Alex Flores, a bartender in McAllen, said Trump’s description of the border as a dangerous landscape of smugglers does not sound like his hometown.

“I’ve lived here all my life, and I have never seen a crisis here,” Flores, 27, said. “We’ve never had issues from cartels coming into our towns and wreaking havoc or anything.”

Even Republicans in McAllen acknowledge the city itself is safe. But they still say Trump is correct to call the situation a crisis.

“When you have people by the thousands entering this country without permission and abusing present immigration policy, it is in essence an open border,” said Sergio Sanchez, a local conservative talk show host. “The wall does work.”

The local economy is inextricably intertwined with that of Reynosa, the city’s Mexican counterpart across the Rio Grande River.

“We have tens of thousands of people go back and forth every day,” Mayor Jim Darling said. “You can’t just shut this place down.”

Though Trump has yet to follow through on his threat to declare a national emergency and attempt to build the wall without congressional approval, his administration intends to start constructing several miles of wall in the Rio Grande Valley in February, after Congress appropriated $1.6 billion last year.

Efforts to build barriers in the past have prompted lawsuits from landowners along the border who stand to lose property, including the butterfly center, which sued in December.

The director, Trevino-Wright, scoffed at Trump’s characterization of the border situation as a national security emergency.

“We have over 6,000 school children ... who come here to visit every year,” she said. “They are coming to frolic at the national butterfly center on the banks of the Rio Grande.”

Reporting by Mitchell Ferman; Additional reporting and writing by Joseph Ax; Editing by Lisa Shumaker