McALLEN – People and businesses across this border city braced for the arrival of President Donald Trump on Thursday, along with the national debate over a border wall that surrounds his visit.
At the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley Humanitarian Respite Center, which helps immigrants released from federal custody, families arranged bus tickets for relatives in the U.S. as children rummaged through bins of donated toys and volunteers handed out oranges. Sister Norma Pimentel, who runs the center, said around 100 migrants were there, down from a daily average of 300 to 500 in December – a high average for December but still lower than previous years.
Pimentel said she doesn’t see the criminal migrants Trump warned about in his recent Oval Office speech and is confident Border Patrol agents and other law enforcement officials keep those criminals from entering the country. The migrants she sees on a daily basis are mostly families fleeing violence in their own countries and seeking a better life in the U.S., she said.
Pimentel said she hopes Trump gets a fuller picture of the border situation from his visit.
"I’m hopeful he'll better understand the whole reality," Pimentel said. "I don’t know if he's open to that, but I hope he is."
She smiled and added: "He's always welcomed here."
Trump has claimed a security and humanitarian crisis to justify his demand for $5.7 billion to extend the border wall, which has driven Washington to a partial government shutdown that has dragged on for nearly three weeks. The president walked out of a White House meeting with congressional Democrats on Wednesday. He Tweeted Thursday morning that he continues to get "great support" for his border wall stance, though opinion polls show otherwise: A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found that only 35 percent of U.S. adults support a spending bill that includes funding for the wall, and 25 percent support Trump’s shutdown.
On Thursday, he plans to visit McAllen and a portion of the Rio Grande, which forms much of the border between the U.S. and Mexico. He is scheduled to receive briefings at each stop from Border Patrol agents.
McAllen Mayor Jim Darling said the impression that the region is under siege is wrong, and that it saw far higher numbers of migrants coming across in 2014 than it has in recent months.
"To me, the real crisis is that the government has not gotten together to get the real issues resolved," Darling said.
Melton Castro, 23, of Honduras, said he was aware of the rhetoric from the White House and the new policies aimed at deterring immigration. But that didn’t stop him from paying a smuggler $7,000 and making the 28-day journey to the U.S. with his 2-year-old son, Luis.
Castro said he was receiving death threats from criminal gangs in his home country and several of his colleagues were kidnapped or killed.
"We're not criminals," he said. "We come here to work, to make a better life for our sons and families."
The marquee at the Cine El Rey, a 1940s-era theater-turned-music-venue in downtown McAllen, usually heralds upcoming rock bands or events. This week, it read: "WELCOME TO MCALLEN, 7TH SAFEST CITY IN AMERICA."
The message comes from a 2015 ranking by smartasset.com and was put up to generate discussion about Trump’s visit, co-owner Bert Guerra said.
Guerra said he generally wants to see the president succeed. But he feels Trump's decision to come to McAllen, a statistically safe city, to tout a perceived crisis of criminals and drugs spilling over the border is a mistake. The focus should be placed on helping Americans and immigrants live together and succeed, not dividing the two, he said.
"That’s what really makes America great: caring for people who are not Americans," Guerra said. "We lose that, we lose our core values."
Contributing: Alan Gomez; Beatriz Alvarado of the Corpus Christi Caller Times.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: As Trump heads to border, McAllen residents ask: What crisis?