In the hours leading up to Trump’s scheduled visit to McAllen, Texas on Thursday, Joacim Hernandez, the 32-year-old president of the Hidalgo County Young Republicans, says that the official Facebook page for the group was flooded with messages. “It was Wednesday and we were like, ‘Oh, man, we don’t really have anything [planned].” So, naturally, Hernandez went on Facebook Live and urged supporters to join them at their McAllen headquarters to make posters (“MAGA,” “BUILD THE WALL,”) to greet Trump with at the McCreery Aviation Center where Air Force One would soon touch down.
“You know, I don’t know that [Trump] really cared to see us or not,” Hernandez says, laughing, “but I think most of the time there really isn’t a visible presence from the Republican Party in the Valley.” And he’s right. To be a young Republican in Hidalgo County is to be an outsider. Though Texas is consistently red, the border towns, like McAllen, which is 90 percent Hispanic, are major blue pockets in the state.
Hernandez, however, who works primarily as a human resources director for a produce warehouse, remains dedicated to expanding the Republican Party in the Rio Grande Valley. He jokingly refers to the pursuit as a “hopeless cause,” calling Republicans winning elected office in Hidalgo County “like the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series.”
I was raised in McAllen and lived there until I was 18-years-old. The picture Trump has painted of life at the border is very different from that of what I experienced. Just a few hours after Trump visited the border and met with border patrol agents, I spoke with Hernandez about his thoughts on what the president is claiming is a crisis on the border, what it’s like to be a Mexican-American Republican and the McAllen he sees through his eyes.
When Trump addressed the nation from the Oval Office he said: “This is a humanitarian crisis. A crisis of the heart, and a crisis of the soul.” Do you agree with that?
Yes. I do think it is a humanitarian crisis on both sides of the border. Obviously the president has made it an issue that he is going to prioritize America first and his views are very nationalist and some would say patriotic. But the way I see it is it’s a humanitarian crisis because there are agents who lose their life in the line of fire trying to protect the border when they encounter illegal trafficking, whether it be human or narcotics. But there are also people who are inhumanely treated as they are making their journey toward the border — the terrain they cross, the conditions they endure — and some of them are even sexually abused and sold into prostitution rings.
It’s definitely a crisis of the heart and soul because you don’t want people losing their lives because of a crime, whether it’s shoplifting or entering the country illegally. You also don’t want people to resort to illegal means to provide a better future for their families.
It’s a humanitarian crisis on both sides. Families are losing loved ones in the line of service and people who may be coming for the right reasons are going about it the wrong way.
And what about asylum seekers?
They found this loophole where they can apply for asylum but the problem is that they are not documenting or checking in with the government after they initially apply for asylum. I heard someone say recently it was about 70 percent of people who apply for asylum don’t show up to their follow-up court date.
Are you pro-wall?
Yeah. And I really don’t think it’s going to be one long structure that stretches 2,000 miles. I think they know which corridors are some of the most heavily trafficked areas along the border, that they need to create some sort of structures not only by steel, which Trump mentioned recently — it’s not going to be concrete it’s going to be steel — but also by smart technology that will be able to give border patrol agents a faster response time and more intelligent information.
So we’re currently on Day 20 of the government shutdown, which is the longest in history. So many federally employed Americans, many of whom even voted for Trump, are still working without pay. Do you think that the sense of urgency that Trump has conveyed about border security is worth it?
You know, that’s a good question. I don’t think we’ve reached the longest period of a shutdown, but I know he’s claimed to keep it going for years.
He said he’s prepared to close it for years if he doesn’t get the $5 billion in funding.
I think our nation should be a priority. When the other side is reluctant to secure and protect our border and our sovereignty as a nation, I think that they are prioritizing other nations over our own needs on the border. We go to a lot of other nations across the globe in the name of being humanitarians and bringing third-world countries into the first world. It should be worth it to all Americans that our nation is sovereign and in control of our borders as opposed to seeing our borders, I wouldn’t say ripped apart, but crossed illegally. But yes, I would say it is worth it because if they really claimed to care about federally employed workers they would give the president $5 billion as opposed to funding other projects.
Trump has also chosen to blame the Democrats’ refusal to fund the border for the shutdown. Do you think that’s fair?
Yes. They’ve done it before. They did it under the Obama administration.
McAllen was named one of the top 20 safest cities in America. Trump believes otherwise largely in part to the immigrant population. What do you think of that?
So you do, or at least I do, see on social media criminal activity — obviously the statistics, you know I haven’t really looked at the report or the survey but there is crime and there is illegal activity along the border whether it’s reported or not.
I don’t think the argument is that McAllen is a crime-free city. But it is true that it has been highlighted as one of the safest cities to live in. The reality of McAllen doesn’t exactly align with the picture of it that Trump has painted.
Right. Yeah. I’m not going to lie, I do feel safe in the neighborhood that I live. I don’t feel like there are people walking the streets that are here illegally that are going to break into my home or any of that. But that illegal or criminal activity is happening. I agree that it is a safe city, it’s a small town. But you know the way the city of McAllen tried to portray it is “We’re a safe city” and they are trying to counter the president’s point about the border — but it’s the acts committed at the border that are illegal. I’m not gonna say everyone always does things that are legal, you know, sometimes we speed, people have lapses in judgement, but what I’m saying is the criminal activity he’s focusing on is the one happening at the crossing of the territorial border of the United States, not so much in the city.
Given what you just said, he has talked about declaring a national emergency if he can’t get the funding. So is this an actual emergency?
You know even if it’s an emergency it’s going to take a couple months to erect these structures along the border. I think it’s a bargaining chip for the president. He threatened the Chinese with tariffs on their products and they ended up with a great deal that is benefiting us. It’s just one of those negotiating, deal-making tactics that he has.
The art of the deal.
Yeah. It’s one of those things where you kind of just have to wait and see what the next move is. And going back to his Oval Office address, I was expecting him to go off and then he was scripted. And then the next morning I was expecting to have sort of a break the internet tweet. But there was nothing. So I think he’s completely serious about funding the wall and he might use the emergency crisis-thing to get it done.
I don’t know what that would mean for the government shutdown. But I do think that the other side needs to — you know right before the New Year both sides came together to pass a criminal justice reform bill that was modeled after Texas, and it was a bipartisan effort, so why can’t we do or have more of these bipartisan moments where it’s for the good and an investment in our nation. Immigration reform would be a great start to a bipartisan moment. But if Congress is going to keep stalling to pass the budget, it’s on them, it really is. That’s the way I see it.
Trump has also threatened to close the border completely. But the Valley’s economy relies so heavily on its relationship with Mexico. Do you think that would be a mistake?
Shutting them down completely? Yes. You know the city’s economy relies on people coming over and shopping but there’s also a lot of people who do business both ways and that is not going to be good for business or for the United States economy either. I don’t think it will get that far. Everyone gets scared or paranoid by the president’s demands or threats when it comes to deals he is trying to work out but you just never know what to expect [laughs].
This week Texas Sen. Ted Cruz proposed the “El Chapo Act” to pay for the wall. What do you think of that plan?
I briefly read the headlines.
Essentially Cruz proposed that El Chapo’s assets, which he alleges are in the billions, could pay for the wall.
I think it’s political jargon to stir up the conversation about the wall.
As far as Sen. Cruz is involved in border security conversations, are you pleased with his leadership?
I love Sen. Cruz’s adherence to the Constitution. He comes off as a hardliner and I think if he was just a tad bit more moderate on some issues he would get a lot more done in the Senate. But you know I’ve never been a senator so those are just my observations as I see the voting population shifting in the state of Texas, because the conservative wave is kind of in their golden years. So as you see the voting population shift into a more diverse and younger population you kind of want to see some sort of moderation in your senators. Beto came pretty close to beating him, even though he’s a radical left politician.
You’d call Beto a radical?
I would. But you know his campaign and his way of reaching out to voters was very middle of the road and kind of cool. He had a very good vibe in the way that he interacted with people as opposed to the senator, who didn’t have a whole lot of grassroots momentum. So definitely looking for something that could show that he is a tad bit progressive. Like, when I describe young Republicans to people, we’re more like classic liberals, we’re not extreme right-wingers because we are big on less government intrusion and fiscally conservative policies — socially we don’t really want government involvement.
Speaking of Beto, the midterm elections suggested the possibility of Texas turning purple in the future. What do you think of that?
It’d be…[laughs]. I don’t want to be caught on record saying it’d be a refreshing change, because I don’t think that’s what I would like. The Valley is completely opposite of the state, so if in the next couple of years the state does go blue, I would hope the Valley goes red [laughs]. Houston saw some pretty bad losses at the county level, and so did Dallas and that whole area. So I tell them all the time, because I also sit on the state federation, I tell them “you guys keep losing voters every election cycle, and the Republican turnout keeps growing in the Valley.” So it’s like what’s going on? We have a lot of younger leaders coming up in statewide politics that I think give our party a good shot in the future. You’ve got George P. Bush, he’s a little brown, a little tan, half hispanic, speaks Spanish and he adds to that diversity. There’s a bright future for the party and we’re trying to be part of it.
On a more personal level, as a Mexican-American who does live in the Valley — Trump has repeatedly attacked Mexicans, he kickstarted his campaign by calling them “rapists,” and he’s been aligned with white supremacy rhetoric, how does that personally affect you and does this at all affect your support of him?
No. Well, you know, I wasn’t an initial supporter of him and sometimes I do cringe when I hear or read some of his statements, other times I just laugh. I do take my support for him with caution because I’m always expecting to be surprised by something he does. So yeah, I do consider my stances on his policies a lot before I go out to the public. But for the most part I do think he’s doing a great job. Some people might not understand everything he is saying but I think he wants to do good for our nation.
Where would you draw the line?
I think personal liberty is a big one. When he starts to censor, for example, free speech not in the sense of the media but more in people expressing their opinions. And also passing some types of gun control policies under his watch. I’d think that’d be something where I would be vocally against it. And when he becomes a direct racist. People call him a racist, they label him as that but I don’t perceive that from his rhetoric. I don’t believe I’m mistaken because I still see a lot of people in the Valley, and not just myself, and sometimes I’m surprised, but there are a lot people who are like me, Mexican-American, my age, that support his policies and his stances. So I’m like, it can’t be racism.
Would you not say that calling Mexicans rapists is racist?
Um. That’s the thing — like Jesus said in the Bible, that you should drink my blood. So, some of Trump’s statements, obviously he’s speaking allegorically. But there’s also cases where he hyperbolizes to prove a point.
Hyperbolizes or lies?
When you hyperbolize often you kind of blur the lines between the truth and the lies. Like I said, it’s one of those things where you have to take his statements with caution and really analyze before publicly supporting.
Today, in McAllen, Trump did say that he supported Dreamers, those of DACA, and wants to help them. Do you believe him?
Yeah, because he said he would grant them legal status and I think he said in exchange for funding for the border wall he would grant them legal status. I’m forgetting his four pillars of immigration but that was his exchange for Congress.
There was a lot of conversation about Trump’s visit and how it would have been beneficial for him to visit one of the detention centers. Do you think he could have benefited from seeing the conditions firsthand?
Today he came to look at the border and meet with border patrol. Like he said, these are the people that need support along the border. But I do think it’s important that he gets the full view, including the detention centers.
On the same note, McAllen first made news last year as the epicenter of the family separation policy. We all saw the conditions they were being held in — children in cages. Is this to you what America and the Valley should look like in 2019?
Well, you know, when people commit a crime they are put in cages called prisons, right?
But not children.
Um, no, not children. But it takes some time to process the people that come here. So, I think we need better efficiency from the government when it comes to processing some of the people who are caught coming over illegally. But yeah, it’s definitely not a good sight when you see children being locked up.
Because of all the media attention McAllen has gotten surrounding the president’s visit and comments about the area, there are huge misconceptions about what life in McAllen is like. As someone who is a resident of McAllen, what do you want people to know about the city?
That it’s a great city to live in. You have a lot of the best of both worlds. We have the best tacos [laughs], some of the best Mexican food, and the culture is diverse in the sense that it’s an American town but the connection with the border in inevitable in our lives. Everyone here comes from an immigrant family. We’re unique, we’re bilingual, a lot of us are bicultural and we hold conservative values. I’d like for them to just know that it’s not the Wild West out here but that there is a lot to work through as we become an important part of the nation’s future because as our border goes so will the future of our nation.