GOP candidates head to the border

McAllen, Texas CNN —  

This dusty town just past a series of international checkpoints is home to few Republican voters but to many Republican fears.

The party’s conservative base is deeply distrustful of the White House’s will to secure the border with Mexico, worrying about the influx of undocumented immigrants who they associate with crime and poverty.

So, Republican presidential hopefuls are making trips here, not to win over locals in this deep-blue region of an otherwise red state. Instead, they’re coming here to bolster their credentials with early-state voters hungry to see candidates pledge to clamp down on illegal immigration.

Rick Perry, the former Texas governor, was here last week. Ted Cruz, a Texas senator who is also seeking the GOP nomination, was in town the week before, when he received a briefing at a U.S. Border Patrol outpost and said stemming the tide of illegal crossings relies on “boots on the ground” first and foremost. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker made the trip earlier this year.

READ: Bush takes on immigration – but at hecklers’ request

Nothing serves as a better backdrop for their stump speeches than the border towns here in the Rio Grande Valley. The tough talk increasingly features harsh words on securing the border to the exclusion of any discussion about what to do with the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the country.

“This issue deserves presidential leadership,” said Cruz, standing in the parking lot of a Buick dealership across the street from the Border Patrol outpost. “That’s what’s missing, and if I’m elected president, that’s what I hope to provide.”

From ‘border first’ to ‘border only’

Cruz and his fellow Republicans might not want to address how they would deal with the undocumented immigrants already in the country, but they are eager to emphasize just how fearlessly they would block illegal border crossings, thwart the drug trade and protect American families from any intruders with any ties to Islamic extremists. The approach is no longer “border first” but “border only.”

When Walker came here in March – as he was struggling to articulate a consistent immigration policy – he declined to spell out his vision of a long-term solution to the nation’s immigration challenges after the border was secure.

“We’ve got to tackle these other issues first,” Walker, who is expected to run in 2016, told reporters the next day.

That tracks with sentiment in the GOP. After a child migrant crisis gripped this town last year, 53% of Republicans nationwide told the Pew Research Center in September that stricter law enforcement alone should be the immigration priority rather than also creating a path to citizenship.

The candidates seem familiar with the numbers.

Sen. Marco Rubio, once a loud-and-proud advocate for comprehensive immigration reform, has retreated to the politically safer ground of putting the border first.

Chris Christie, who is expected to declare his candidacy this summer, has frequently avoided sharing his thoughts on national immigration policy as governor. Instead, he tends to espouse the need for better border control beyond all else.

Yet many Latino Republicans are worried that prioritizing the border over broader immigration reform will alienate members of the crucial Latino voting group.

Cruz drew about 100 donors to the fundraiser he held at a museum here while in town, but some of his supporters in this heavily Hispanic part of his home state said they openly disagreed with him on immigration.

Seeking solutions, not just slogans

“It’s not a matter of being tough on the border. It’s about having solutions for the border,” said Ruben Villarreal, who was one of the region’s few Republican elected officials when he served as mayor of Rio Grande City.

Quick photo-ops at the border, Villarreal said, amount to “people kicking the tires on the car and thinking they know how to fix the engine.”

“If you’re doing border visits only, that might help the base – but that won’t help in the general” election, warned Artemio Muniz, a Texas GOP strategist helping raise money for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

READ: Obama on immigration delay: ‘Obviously, I’m frustrated’

Bush is one of the few expected Republican candidates to detail an immigration position beyond border security – a stance likely to be a major liability for him in the primaries.

Muniz said Cruz’s attention solely on the border was too single-minded.

“If that’s your only approach to the issue, then as a candidate I don’t think you’re showing a good grasp of the entire situation,” he said.

Some local leaders have also criticized Cruz for not visibly tending to the border, saying he has not made enough trips. (His most recent trip was his fourth since being elected.)

Asked if his immigration plan is too narrow, Cruz emphasized to reporters that he also supports efforts to combat the overstaying of visas, streamline legal immigration and install an E-verify system.

Cruz holds a fundraiser, skips immigration talk

At the fundraiser, several attendees said Cruz didn’t touch on immigration or border issues at all, which they said surprised them.

The event was unusual enough to draw George Rice, who pulled his Ford pickup truck into the parking lot outside the Cruz fundraiser and stayed there out of pure curiosity.

A moderate Republican, Rice said he finds Cruz’s position on border security too extreme and too dominant in the GOP debate. But he is among the locals encouraged that candidates are at least beginning to show up – even if briefly.

A county that gave 70% of its vote to Obama in 2012 might not even have expected to host a GOP fundraiser in the first place.

“Democrats ignored us because, ‘Oh, the valley’s safe – it’s blue,’ and Republicans ignored us because, ‘Well, it’s the valley – we don’t have a chance,’” Rice recalled.

Yet some in the area knock the visits as still too infrequent, and more style than substance.

“I don’t think they come enough, to be quite honest,” said Jon Valdivida as cars honked down Main Street, where awnings alternate between “joyeria” and “jeweler.” “They come and parade around and leave.”