CALEXICO — President Donald Trump arrived in Calexico today where he is meeting with law enforcement and will tour what he has proclaimed to be the first section of his border wall, as part of his insistent push for a hardened border with Mexico.
Trump touched down at Naval Air Facility El Centro shortly before 11:40 a.m., where he was greeted by Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, and others.
He gave a thumbs up to a crowd of supporters at the base, then shook hands and spoke briefly to them. He signed “Make America Great Again” hats, saluted to military members, then got into a black Chevy Suburban to motorcade to the Calexico Border Patrol Station.
There, he will hold a roundtable discussion with law enforcement and others from the desert border town of about 40,000 residents.
Outside the station, a small crowd of Trump supporters waited for his arrival, lining the street with their cars, many with American flags flapping in the slight breeze that didn’t do much to stave off the heat of the desert sun.
One sign read, “If you build it, they won’t come.”
Meanwhile, dozens of protesters gathered downtown, where they marched and chanted “Si se puede” — Yes we can — and “What do we want? Justice!” Nearby, a huge balloon depicting a cartoonish baby Trump flew overhead.
After the roundtable, Trump is set tour Calexico’s newly replaced border fence before heading to Los Angeles for a fundraiser.
“We’re building a lot of wall, we’re going to show you a section, and a lot of things happening,” Trump told reporters this morning outside the White House before boarding Marine One. “A lot of very positive things are happening.”
The barrier covers two miles along the edge of Calexico’s downtown, past an outlet mall and into agricultural fields. Welded to the barrier is a plaque identifying the structure as “the first section of President Trump’s border wall.”
The 30-foot-tall barrier of concrete-filled steel bollards replaced opaque landing mat fencing, part of an upgrade that had been planned by previous administrations but funded under Trump’s first year in office and completed late last year.
The visit comes a day after Trump changed course on his threats to close parts or all of the southwestern border, instead giving Mexico a one-year window to stop the flow of drugs and migrants from entering the U.S. Otherwise, he warned of automobile tariffs, and “if that doesn’t work, we’re going to close the border.”
Trump pointed to his threat has being effective already. “Mexico has been absolutely terrific for the last four days. They’re apprehending everybody,” he told reporters in Washington. “Yesterday they apprehended 1,400 people. The day before was 1,000. And if they apprehend people at their southern border where they don’t have to walk through, that’s a big home run. We can handle it from there. It’s really good.”
This will be Trump’s second trip to the California border as president. One year ago, he toured the eight prototype walls he had commissioned in Otay Mesa. The prototypes have since been demolished.
The visit comes as record numbers of asylum-seeking families from Central America are crossing into the U.S., with Texas’s Rio Grande sector seeing the heaviest traffic.
In February, Border Patrol apprehended 66,450 migrants along the southwest border; just over half of them were part of a family unit, according to the agency. The El Centro sector, which includes Calexico, accounted for 3,319 of those arrests, with a third coming as part of a family.
While March apprehension tallies aren’t to be released until Monday, officials have projected the mark to approach 100,000. To compare, Border Patrol arrested 37,390 last March.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is calling the surge a crisis and resorted to holding hundreds of arriving families in makeshift camps surrounded by fencing under the El Paso bridge, citing a lack of detention space.
As many as 750 U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers across the country have been redeployed to areas most hard hit to help process the families. CBP has warned that the staffing shift will be felt at ports of entry, including at Otay Mesa’s commercial trucking facility where 10 lanes have been reduced to eight indefinitely.
Some Border Patrol highway checkpoints have also been shuttered in Texas due to manpower needs.
In downtown Calexico, near the city’s water tower, dozens of protesters said closing the border with Mexico is not a viable solution. The city’s residents were encouraged to wear white signifying the peace of their border community.
Suzie Newell, 64, held a small sign with a picture of two hands shaking over a barbed wire fence. The hands are tattooed with the Mexican and American flags. It reads “Two Countries and One community.”
A resident of El Centro, a town next to Calexico, she said she came out to oppose closing the border has Trump has threatened to do.
“I don’t think he’s thinking about how it’s going to affect both sides,” she said. “It will hurt the economy.”
“We have a lot of farm workers who cross the border doing jobs that Americans won’t do,” she added.
Newell, who taught as a teacher in Calexico for 24 years, said she didn’t agree with how her border town was being portrayed by Trump.
“We don’t have a border problem,” she said.
Covered in hearts pinned to her shirt, Frederic’s Luke, 72, who drove all the way from Brawley to participate in today’s march and demonstration rally, pinned a heart on Eduardo Olveira, a 17-year-old who was on his way to school. The teen had stopped to talk to demonstrators.
Luke said she came out to demonstrate against Trump and spread a little love in the process.
“I didn’t vote for him and I initially gave him a chance,” she said. “But I think he’s incompetent. I’m horrified some people haven’t seen what a fraud he is.”
At least two Trump supporters stood by watching for a few minutes: Linda Jung,71, and her husband Keith Wood, 80.
“We came to support our wonderful president,” Wood said.
The couple said they support a closed border to get Congress to improve immigration laws, Wood said. “If we have to suffer some economic shortcomings, then so be it.”
Later, as the demonstration moved near the Calexico airport next to the border fence, Mexicans popped their hand through gaps and took a photos.
Among then was 49-year-old David Villanueva, who was heading home from work when he started hearing the echoes of chants and people cheering.
Asked about the new barrier, topped with concertina wire that has been added in recent months, he looked around.
“This thing is massive,” he said. “Feels like a prison wall.”
Joe Rivas, 60, a resident of El Centro, who came out to support the president, said the new wall was about safety.
“There are too many drugs coming through the country,” he said.
Rivas said drugs have taken friends and torn families apart.
“People are overdosing everyday,” he said.
Still, there was one thing both sides could agree on: no one liked the razor wire.
“It looks ugly,” Rivas said.
Trump is being joined on the visit by U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan and Border Patrol officials.
In a video posted to Twitter from the El Centro naval base, Hunter said he was going to thank Trump for his role in getting San Diego-based Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher released from the brig as his case is pending. Gallagher is accused of killing an injured ISIS fighter in Iraq.
The congressman also plans to ask for a presidential pardon for two former Border Patrol agents who were convicted in the shooting an unarmed marijuana smuggler as he tried to run from Texas and into Mexico. Their sentences have already been commuted.
Los Angeles Times reporter Ruben Vives contributed to this report.
(c)2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune
Visit The San Diego Union-Tribune at www.sandiegouniontribune.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
This content is published through a licensing agreement with Acquire Media using its NewsEdge technology.