LAREDO, Tex. — A defiant Donald Trump, visiting the U.S. border with Mexico here Thursday, said again that he will not apologize for his hard-line rhetoric on illegal immigration or back away from his plan to build a wall between the two nations.
During a whirlwind visit — it was less than three hours from when his jet touched down to when it took off — Trump blazed around in a presidential-style motorcade that included seven SUVs and even more police cars. Local officers blocked off roads, including Interstate 35, for Trump’s entourage.
The Republican presidential candidate, leading the GOP field in national polls but increasingly under fire from the establishment wing of his party, said repeatedly that he had been told he would be in “great danger” if he visited this town of 236,000 in southern Texas — even though Laredo, which is roughly 96 percent Hispanic, has a significantly lower murder rate than Trump’s home town of New York City. He would not say who had told him that he was at risk.
At the World Trade Bridge, where a long line of 18-wheelers queued up to enter the United States, Trump spent half an hour meeting with local leaders — none of whom seemed eager to endorse his signature prescription for border security.
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, with the crossing as a backdrop, Laredo City Manager Jesus Olivares said the border fence Trump has been calling for was not on their list of priorities.
“We don’t think that’s necessary at this time,” he replied, with Trump looking on.
Asked whether that opinion would have an impact on his own, Trump said nothing had changed: “Not at all. . . . In certain sections, we have to have a wall.”
On a windy day with temperatures over 100 degrees, Trump wore a blazer, white dress shoes and a white ball cap emblazoned with his campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.”
At every stop, his visit seemed to draw more journalists than locals. More than 100 reporters, with multiple camera crews in tow, chased after the former “Apprentice” star as soon as his jet touched down in Laredo, packing two charter buses for the drive to the border.
Border Patrol agents who had been slated to lead the tour backed out Thursday morning, citing the appearance of politicization. Trump accused unnamed officials in Washington of trying to silence them.
After his visit to the border, Trump stopped briefly to speak to a few dozen plainclothes Border Patrol agents and others in local law enforcement. He got a raucous reception, especially when he said that he would give agents more leeway to do their jobs if elected. He declined to elaborate on what that might mean.
Luis Villegas, a 28-year-old Border Patrol agent who said he has been on the force for eight years, cheered Trump loudly. He said he has never been politically active but has been galvanized by the mogul’s stance on immigration. “I believe in what he’s throwing out there,” Villegas said.
Trump, meanwhile, took another shot at former Texas governor Rick Perry in his home state, calling him a “terrible” governor. “I’m not even sure he honestly understands what [border security] means,” he said.
Perry, another GOP presidential contender, on Wednesday called Trump “a cancer on conservatism.” The former governor’s campaign made surrogates available Thursday to defend his record on border security as Perry issued another scathing statement slamming Trump.
“As a known employer of illegal immigrant labor, Donald Trump’s record on border security is non-existent at best and a farce at worst,” Perry said. “It’s going to take more than a day trip for him to convince the American people he is anything but a hypocrite when it comes to border security.”
About 50 Hispanic activists — a few waving Mexican flags — protested outside the terminal where Trump’s private jet landed, pointing to his controversial remarks last month that many Mexicans who come to the United States illegally are drug dealers or rapists.
“The criminal element sells newspapers, but for every one of those there are hundreds of good Mexican nationals that . . . just want to work,” said Jose Gonzalez, 67, a retired firefighter who was among the protesters.
Trump responded to questions about whether he should apologize for his remarks by saying again that he employs thousands of Hispanics, and that they “love” him.
“They were chanting for me at the airport,” he said.
“There were plenty chanting against you,” a reporter yelled back during his news conference.
“I didn’t see them,” Trump said.
A few minutes later, another reporter asked why the magnate would not apologize to the Hispanics he has offended.
“They weren’t insulted,” Trump said, “because the press misinterprets my words.”
Trump ducked when asked what he would do with the 11 million undocumented immigrants estimated to be in the United States.
“The first thing is to secure our borders,” he said, “and after that we’ll have plenty of time to talk about it.”