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We Don't Need A Physical Wall, Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz Says


Congressional leaders have been invited back to the White House today, but both sides are dug in to their positions, so there aren't a lot of expectations for a breakthrough to end the partial government shutdown. President Trump is demanding $5 billion in funding for his wall on the Mexican border. House Democrats, meanwhile, passed legislation yesterday which would keep border security funding at 1.3 billion. For the president, this is an issue that has been a priority since the early days of his campaign. A month after then-candidate Donald Trump announced he was running, in 2015, he traveled to the border city of Laredo, in Texas, to deliver this message.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: In certain sections, you have to have a wall. Absolutely.


TRUMP: And, by the way, the wall - the wall will save you a tremendous amount of money. But you absolutely - there are areas that you have to have the wall.

MARTIN: The mayor of Laredo, Peter Saenz (ph), welcomed then-candidate Trump at the time.


PETE SAENZ: We're excited to have Mr. Donald Trump here in Laredo, Texas. It has provided us an opportunity to present to Mr. Trump and his entourage what Laredo's all about.

MARTIN: We wanted to learn how the border debate looks from Laredo, so we have called up Mayor Saenz to talk with us this morning. Thanks so much for being with us.

SAENZ: Yes, ma'am. Thank you so much for invitation, Rachel.

MARTIN: Before we move to the present moment, I wonder if you could walk us back to when candidate Trump visited Laredo back in the day when he was running for president. You were able to tell him about the border issues that were facing your city. What did you describe to him?

SAENZ: What we did, we described, basically, what Laredo's all about. And we're the No. 1 land port in the entire Americas. We're the No. 2 port, behind Long Beach, as a port, overall port. We do over $200 billion worth of trade, primarily with Mexico. We have a strong relationship - economic and beyond - with Mexico, and this is why it's so sensitive for us here at the border as to how we deal with Mexico. Particularly, trade, you know, in general because we are a logistics warehousing distribution center...

MARTIN: Right.

SAENZ: ...An important center. We add and bring value to the state of Texas, but, of course, the nation as well. And so...

MARTIN: What did you tell him about the wall? Did you agree with him that a wall was a good idea or a bad idea?

SAENZ: (Laughter) Well, he asked. And, of course, we told him - he was insisting on this physical wall, and we told him that given the terrain and how the lay of the land there - you know, we have a network of creeks and waterways that actually empty into the river. And it's a rolling topography. It doesn't necessarily lend itself engineering-wise, I think, it doesn't lend itself for a physical wall.

And I think at that time - and I think you showed, or at least, you presented a part of that interview - he did concede that maybe through natural barriers, that those could serve as a barrier, as well. So but then again, he's been changing his mind on the size and type of fence, or barrier, or wall or whatever.

So anyway, our position there in Laredo is we don't need a physical wall. We have a natural barrier. And we expressed that to him. We consistently kept that position. I'm also the chairman of the Texas Border Coalition, which is really mayors and judges from Brownsville to El Paso, and consistently, we've kept that policy. You know, we could do without a physical wall. We're very much for border security. Believe us. We need border security.

MARTIN: That means more agents, better technology, things like that.

SAENZ: Yeah. We're proposing this virtual wall concept, which now through technology, more personnel - frankly, we work very closely. We're not a sanctuary city. We work very closely with the federal people there, all agencies, and it's our plan to continue with them. And also clearing the vegetation. We have dense vegetation there by the river banks. And working with Mexico, I personally have a very good, strong relationship with the mayor of Nuevo Laredo, who's our counterpart there at the Laredo port. And they're very open to cooperation, and their willingness to help out on these border issues...

MARTIN: Yeah. Let me ask you - so you say you don't need a wall. President Trump insists that you do. You are actually not in Texas at this moment. We're talking to you from Washington, D.C. You are here talking with lawmakers about the border issue. Can you tell us who you've spoken with and what those conversations have been like? Is your message getting through?

SAENZ: I think so. Or, at least, the attempt is very strong for us. We obviously visited with the people there in Texas - Senator Cornyn, Senator Cruz and our congressman, Henry Cuellar. We've been visiting with other new senators and congresspeople that were coming in just to impress on them, you know, the need. President Trump also stated as part of his leveraging momentum here for the wall is that he wanted to close the border.

And, of course, that would be catastrophic for us as a community, but also our state, state of Texas, and the nation. Millions of jobs depend on cross-border trade and commerce, and we've got to be very careful as to how we approach these things. I would prefer that that type of rhetoric is kept out because it does create all sorts of uncertainty in the markets, and more so in the trade business.

MARTIN: Just lastly, the president has asked the Pentagon to deploy troops to the border to build or upgrade existing fencing. Do you think that's a good idea? Do you need that?

SAENZ: Not in our area. Maybe in other areas. You know, there's got to be a solution to it, but it's got to be practical. And it's got to be, you know, effective and physically responsible. We personally feel that money could be applied somewhere else. So, you know, we're expecting good things, hopefully in the near future.

MARTIN: Mayor Pete Saenz of Laredo, Texas. Thank you so much.

SAENZ: Yes, ma'am. Thank you for the time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: January 3, 2019 at 9:00 PM PST
A previous version of the headline misspelled Laredo, Texas, as Loredo.