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As Tensions Over Immigration Rise, Paul Ryan Visits Border

House Speaker Paul Ryan is traveling to McAllen, Texas Wednesday for his first visit to the Mexico-U.S. border as tensions mount immigration.
Image: A U.S. Customs and Border Protection boat carrying U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan travels down the Rio Grande, Feb. 22, 2017 south of Mission, Texas.
A U.S. Customs and Border Protection boat carrying U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan travels down the Rio Grande, Feb. 22, 2017 south of Mission, Texas. Ryan and Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, toured the Texas border with Mexico by air and boat, as well as U.S. Border Patrol facilities in the area.Nathan Lambrecht / AP

House Speaker Paul Ryan made his first ever trip to the U.S.-Mexico border Wednesday as tensions over immigration policies mount and the initial work towards construction of President Trump's wall is set to begin. He and House Homeland Security chair Michael McCaul and a handful of other GOP members toured the Rio Grande river on horseback and via air.

Ryan didn't take the press with him on his trip to McAllen, Texas but he was led by officials from the Department of Homeland Security “to examine the challenges of securing the border and learn more about the issues facing border communities,” according to Ryan spokesman Doug Andres.

"When you see with your own eyes the many challenges facing our law enforcement professionals along the border, it gives you even greater respect for the work that they do day-in and day-out," Ryan said in a statement after his tour. "But more tools and more support are needed for them to do their jobs effectively. Congress is committed to securing the border and enforcing our laws, and together with the Trump administration, we will get this done."

President Donald Trump has repeatedly pledged to build a wall along the Mexico border, a multi-billion dollar project that will have to be approved by Congress. Ryan said that he expects the White House to send an emergency funding request to Congress to begin the construction of the wall soon, but the administration has yet to request federal funding as of Wednesday.

Immigration advocates, however, are worried that Ryan won't receive a full understanding of border town challenges because he's not scheduled to meet with border residents. Chris Rickerd, policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, said that Democratic members of Congress visited McAllen last week and held town halls with residents.

“Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear Speaker Ryan and Rep. McCaul are interested in hearing from people living at the border,”Rickerd said.

Ryan’s trip also comes as the Trump administration's immigration policies continue to draw protests around the country. The administration this week released two orders that greatly expand the number of people targeted for deportation. Some estimates show that up to eight million of the estimated 11 million undocumented people living in the U.S. could be deported.

The orders also attempt to restrict the ability to seek asylum and crack down on parents who pay smugglers to bring their children into the U.S., as some Central American parents have done.

In 2016, McAllen saw an increase in the number of unaccompanied children and families attempting to enter the U.S.

Related: Trump Enforcement Plan Has Immigrants Bracing for Raids, Deportation

While most Democratic members of Congress, mayors and governors immediately panned the immigration orders, saying they will divide communities, jeopardize people’s safety and cause immigrants to live in fear, many Republicans applauded the move.

Ryan, however, has not released a statement on the orders. Neither has the top Republican in the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Ryan had previously dismissed the idea of mass deportation, saying in a CNN town hall event on January 12 that there will be no deportation force.

“I’m here to tell you, in Congress, it’s not happening,” he said. “But if you're worried about, you know, some deportation force coming, knocking on your door this year, don't worry about that.”

Just last week, McConnell was reluctant to answer any questions about the draft immigration proposals that had been leaked to the press.

“I'll take a look at anything they may choose to do in that regard,” he said in a news conference Friday.

Most Democrats have been highly critical of the new immigration orders. Rep. Bennie Thompson, top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, called the orders “unwise and heartless.”

"Resources are not unlimited: when available resources are used to detain and remove law-abiding immigrants and break apart families, there are less resources to find and remove dangerous criminals from our streets,” Thompson said.

Also notable is that two Hispanic Republican members of Congress, Rep. Ileanna Ros-Lehtinen and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, both of Florida, have yet to issue statements on the orders.

Alex Moe contributed.