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Border & Immigration

Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz Talks Border Wall, November Election And Travel Restrictions

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Verónica G. Cárdenas for Texas Public Radio

Laredo has been a target of President Donald Trump’s push for border wall construction in South Texas for more than a year. Earlier this summer, U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced two contracts for wall construction in the area. But a coalition of residents, landowners and city leaders have been pushing back on the efforts of Customs and Border Protection. 

In late August, Council Member Mercurio Martinez said he wanted Laredo’s Police Department to be ready to take down concertina wire. CBP officials have signaled they want to put the wire on the city’s property along the border, and the council voted not to enter into a lease agreement with CBP. Last week, Mayor Pete Saenz published a letter in the Laredo Morning Times calling for Laredo to work to become a Department of Homeland Security “major hub or base,” regardless of whether President Trump is re-elected in November. 

TPR News spoke to Saenz about his letter, border issues and the upcoming elections. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

TPR: When we’ve spoken before, you have said the city’s stance on the wall has always been no wall. But your letter in the Laredo Morning Times acknowledges that it may very well be built. How has your stance changed over time?

Saenz: It really hasn’t changed. The city’s position has always been no physical wall. What I’m saying is ‘allow the election as a referendum on the wall and on our posture toward the federal government.’ I perceive that the federal government may be treated as an enemy. The federal government is not an enemy. Yes, we have differences. The wall being a big difference. Some people want it. Some people don't. So I'm saying we have 60 days left for the election, let the election help us one way or the other... 

My concern is in the election, based on what I hear and see, they’re going to be very close. I mean, there's a probable potential there that we may end up with a President Trump as our president. And if that's the case, I want our city of Laredo to be fairly postured for any economic activity that we may have. And who else but the federal government that services the border area? The border will always be contentious. One way or the other border security, immigration, illegal activity, trade, commerce, political international situations that come up, so we'll always have a federal presence... 

I and others here have been working very closely with the federal government to expand an air marine hangar here. This is basically the first step. There's very serious talks on having a federal agency campus here in Laredo. And then I'm proposing if that’s the case, wall or no wall, Joe Biden or, or Donald Trump, you know, we should pursue a federal base or a hub for the federal agencies here simply because the border will always need their presence.

TPR: Do you feel that Laredo is overlooked right now? We already do cooperate a lot with the federal government and Customs and Border Protection. So what do you think is missing, and why should we strive to become a DHS base or hub?

Saenz: What’s missing is more open communication. It bothers me when I hear that we should confront them physically or facing off. That shouldn't happen. And obviously, can you imagine the message that that sends to the federal government? We see a lot of anarchy or at least a so-called alleged, you know, anarchy throughout other cities. I wouldn't want our city to be seen or taken in that manner. 

I think we can always work things out… And we're well poised to become a base for DHS, or for any other federal agency, and we have so many others, and I would hate for them to perceive as we're closing doors. And I, as a mayor, want to keep those doors open and as a matter of a fact open them even wider, because we don't know what the future will bring. And when I see economic opportunities here by the federal government serving as an economic engine and carrying our city in the local economy for the foreseeable future, you know, that's a wonderful opportunity. 

TPR: As you’ve pointed out, some residents, for example, the No Border Wall Coalition, have been against not only the wall, but also have called for what seems to be a separation from what they call the militarization of the border. How would your idea for a DHS hub or base address the concerns of those citizens (residents), and especially demands for money for that sector to be re-invested in community programs? 

Saenz: Again, the election hopefully will be determinative of that. If people want to fight those issues, and of course we do want to fight those issues, we should vote for the person that will or will not allow for those issues. But going back to… I wouldn't want a strictly militarized border. The optics are not conducive for friendliness, but yet, they're there. So we have this opportunity here: This election to cast our vote, and that could stop the wall or the wall will continue.

TPR: I did want to ask about border closures (to nonessential travel) because I believe we’re going on almost six months now. How has that changed your economic outlook for the city?

Saenz: Well, it’s not very good. But we understand why too... Things are getting better here in our city. We want them to continue getting better. My understanding is Nuevo Laredo is also getting better. But I think we're still far removed from having the border entirely opened. I would truly want to see that. But I do see the tremendous progress we've made here locally, and so we take it day by day, week by week and see how things progress. In the event that they do open, I would like to see the federal government scrutinize medically, whoever, comes in the non-essentials, and everyone really, and so we can be more preventative, and cautious. But it remains to be seen. 

See, before this issue came up, we were having trouble even creating ER capacity in our hospitals. Now we do have a little capacity. But that doesn't mean things can turn for the worst again, because we know how this virus is and we've seen it in other communities. It could easily spring up again. And that's the fear that we have, but again, our businesses, the economy is hurting. So, again, we have to be prudent and evaluate and, and follow what the medical authority is telling us to a greater extent.

The nonessential travel restrictions at the border remain in place through Sept. 21.

María Méndez can be reached at maría@tpr.org or on Twitter at @anxious_mariaShe is a corps member of Report For America.

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