Ever sure of himself, Donald Trump paid a whirlwind visit to the Mexico border Thursday and predicted Hispanics would love him — "they already do" — because as president he'd grab jobs back from overseas and give more opportunity to those who live in the U.S. legally.
"There's great danger with the illegals," the Republican presidential contender told reporters. But he claimed a "great relationship" with Hispanics, even as Latino leaders have come at him with blistering criticism for his painting Mexican immigrants as criminals.
"I'll take jobs back from China, I'll take jobs back from Japan," Trump said. "The Hispanics are going to get those jobs, and they're going to love Trump."
The in-and-out border visit came as Trump continued to dominate attention in the Republican presidential race, to the growing exasperation of his rivals. Campaigning in Gorham, N.H., Jeb Bush offered a distinctly different message in the immigration debate — and spoke partly in Spanish.
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"A Republican will never be elected president of the United States again unless we campaign like this," Bush said, gesturing with open arms.
"Unless we campaign openly — where we campaign in every nook and cranny of this country, where we go campaign in the Latino communities, fast-growing communities all across this country that will make a difference in who the next president is going to be."
Trump, a businessman and reality TV host, set up a dramatic scene in advance of his own campaign trip, telling the mob of reporters who greeted him at the airport that he was putting himself in "great danger" by coming to the border area across from the volatile Mexican city of Nuevo Laredo. But, he said, "I have to do it. I have to do it."
Trump, who arrived wearing a "Make America Great Again" baseball cap, spent nearly an hour touring the World Trade Bridge with the city's mayor and manager, according to his campaign, before holding a news conference at the border crossing.
As he spoke to reporters with his back to the Rio Grande, a huge stream of transport trucks inched peacefully from the Mexican side onto the World Trade Bridge and into Texas at a bustling commercial hub routinely visited by officials. Trump travelled in a massive police-escorted motorcade on roads closed for his entourage.
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A local border patrol union pulled out of events involving him. Patrol agents had planned to accompany Trump to the border and hold a meeting with him but cancelled after consultations with their national union, the National Border Patrol Council, said Hector Garza, president of Local 2455.
Trump stepped off his plane in Laredo and said the union members backed out because they were "petrified and they're afraid of saying what's happening" at the border. Dozens of people were on hand, a mix of protesters and supporters.
Some chanted "fuera," telling him to get out; a supporter waved a sign, "no era insulto," meaning his remarks about immigrants that touched off a feud with Republican rivals were not an insult.
Trump's visit ended with a bizarre appearance in front of several dozen law enforcement officers, including some from U.S. Border Patrol. He left after less than four minutes after losing patience with a reporter's question.
On his claim about repatriating jobs, Trump has offered few specifics on the economic policies he would pursue if elected president. In his announcement speech last month, he called for rebuilding the nation's infrastructure and renegotiating foreign trade deals but did not say how he would seek to recast those agreements.
In recent years, he's called for a hefty tax on imports, criticized North American and South Korean trade deals and said Ford should be penalized for expanding operations in Mexico. Yet, paradoxically, he's praised globalization for tearing down barriers to international markets.
Trump's views 'have no place in politics'
His visit drew strong reaction from some residents of Laredo, which has an overwhelmingly Hispanic population.
The visit amounted to nothing more than a publicity stunt, said Laredo resident Jesus Ochoa, 25, who travelled to the airport to protest Trump's visit. Ochoa, who was born and raised in the border city, said he found Trump's comments on undocumented immigrants deeply offensive and said Trump didn't know what he was talking about.
"He spent a little more than an hour here and he didn't really get to know anything about this city," he said. "In the end, he got broadcast on all the major television news reports and I think that's all he was looking for."
But Karina Villalba, 26, waited for Trump at the airport and held a sign saying "I heard your speech & I am NOT offended." A Hispanic oilfield worker, she said she appreciates Trump's in-your-face tone. "Sometimes honesty hurts," she said.
Mexico's secretary of state, Jose Antonio Meade Kuribrena, told the San Francisco Chronicle that Trump's views "have no place in politics." They are "coloured by prejudice, racism — or just plain ignorance," he said.
Trump roiled the presidential race weeks ago when he branded Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals, sparking a feud with his Republican rivals that intensified after his dismissive comments about Arizona Senator John McCain's military service in the Vietnam War.
From party heavyweights like former Florida Gov. Bush to relative newcomers to the national scene like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Trump's rivals face his tactics of calling out his critics by name, vilifying the GOP establishment and injecting inflammatory rhetoric into the immigration debate.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, told MSNBC on Thursday, "I think he's sort of a political car wreck where people slow down and watch."