U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on Thursday visited the southern Texas town of Laredo, on the U.S.-Mexico border, vowing to tackle the problem of illegal immigration.
Border security and immigration have been two key topics for the real estate magnate since he announced his candidacy.
Trump upset 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 Sen. John McCain's military service in the Vietnam War.
Asked whether he had evidence for his claim that Mexico sends rapists and other criminals across the border, he replied, "Yes, I have, and I've heard it from a lot of different people."
He also said Mexican immigrants were "not offended" by his comments, contending the media had misconstrued them. He said he thought he would win the Hispanic vote.
Trump set up a dramatic scene in advance of his trip, saying he was putting himself in "great danger'' by coming to the border area across from the volatile Mexican city of Nuevo Laredo. But he gave no clear answer when asked for evidence of specific danger.
A local branch of Border Patrol agents who were going to host the Laredo event pulled out at the last minute. Trump said they were "scared."
"They were totally silenced directly from superiors in Washington who do not want people to know how bad it is on the border, every bit as bad as Mr. Trump has been saying," a Trump campaign statement said.
A spokesman for the national office of the agents' union was not immediately available for comment.
Trump's suggestion that the area is dangerous brought a rebuke from local Democratic state Senator Judith Zafferini.
"Contrary to Trump's vitriolic rhetoric, the border is not a dangerous war zone," she said. "Laredo and El Paso have been ranked among the safest cities in the country, and most border communities' crime rates are equal to, or lower than, the state and national averages."
Even as immigration remains a hot topic, the number of people emigrating from Mexico to the United States, legally and illegally, peaked in 2003 and has fallen by more than half since then, according to research published on Wednesday by the University of New Hampshire.
In Washington on Wednesday, former Texas Governor Rick Perry denounced Trump's campaign as a "cancer on conservatism'' and a "barking carnival act'' in a speech that defined "Trumpism'' as "a toxic mix of demagoguery, mean-spiritedness and nonsense that will lead the Republican Party to perdition if pursued.''
Trump nevertheless remains at or near the top of many opinion polls among the 16 candidates in the race for the party's nomination for the 2016 presidential election, and he threatened in an interview published Thursday to run as a political independent if he does not get "fair" treatment from the Republican Party.
Some information for this report came from Reuters.