Editor’s Note: To Border Patrol agents, local police officers, mayors, landowners, workers, farmers and conservationists living in the lower Rio Grande Valley, and interviewed by CNN over a week this spring, the prospect of the wall is either a non-starter or an afterthought — a geographic impossibility, diplomatic disaster and social unraveling tied up in a political debate that rarely invites their voices.
The candidate had a question.
Nearly six weeks earlier, in June 2015, Donald Trump kicked off his Republican primary campaign by accusing the Mexican government of flushing its most dangerous criminals north into the United States and promising to build “a great, great wall” to stop the flow.
Now he was in Laredo, Texas, sitting across from its mayor, Pete Saenz, in the backseat of an SUV as it sped toward a border crossing.
“He asked me whether I knew whether or not Mexico had a policy, direct or indirect, of sending bad guys over here,” Saenz recalled from behind his desk in city hall, almost a year after their brief meeting.
“No,” he told Trump, “I really haven’t heard that.”
“I guess he wanted confirmation or verification of some sort,” Saenz said, suggesting Trump had been fed the story by “the Border Patrol folks.”
At the core of Donald Trump’s chaotic presidential campaign, there has been one very consistent pledge: If elected, he will build a “big, beautiful wall” to seal the US border with Mexico.
Saenz is in his mid-60s. He’s spent most of his life in Laredo. Parts of his family have been in present-day South Texas for more than a century, his mother’s side even longer, for five generations. As mayor, he presides over a city that, by the grace of NAFTA, is home to one of America’s largest inland ports. Laredo in this decade has emerged as the beating heart of a customs district that runs south to Brownsville, where the Rio Grande meets the Gulf of Mexico, and did about $280 billion in business — about 7% of all US trade — in 2014.
Trump had come here, the candidate told reporters gathered in Laredo International Airport last year, despite the “great danger” that surrounded him. But he was greeted with only minor protests and some passing curiosity — a white Republican, Saenz noted, in a city of brown Democrats.