WASHINGTON – As Arizona resident Steve Ronnebeck watched President Donald Trump sign an executive order to tighten U.S. borders and immigration policies Wednesday, he said he felt as if his slain son Grant finally had a voice.
Ronnebeck was one of two Arizonans, along with Mary Ann Mendoza, invited to the signing ceremony in Washington because they had children killed by immigrants who were in this country illegally.
“It shows me that we have a president who is fulfilling his promises that were made on the campaign trail,” Steve Ronnebeck said after the signing ceremony at the Department of Homeland Security.
“He’s trying to make sure that this doesn’t happen to another family,” Ronnebeck said. “That another family doesn’t have to go through the tragedy and the devastation that my family and I have gone through.”
The executive orders follow through on Trump’s pledges to tighten immigration that were a highlight of his campaign.
Measures signed Wednesday call for the “immediate construction” of a wall on the southern border, the hiring of thousands of new customs and border patrol officers, the withdrawal of grant funding for sanctuary cities – those that refuse to prosecute immigrants who violate immigration laws – and the establishment of agreements with local police agencies to enforce immigration laws, among other steps.
The orders also reiterate Trump’s campaign pledge to make Mexico ultimately bear the cost of building any new border wall, although how that might be done is not spelled out.
The executive orders drew heated criticism from immigration advocates and others even before they were signed Wednesday.
Plans to build “a great wall” and to attack sanctuary cities are just more examples of “the president’s xenophobic, anti-immigrant action that will harm our economy and sow even greater division across the nation and around the world,” said Promise Arizona Executive Director Petra Falcon in a prepared statement.
Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus blasted the orders in a conference call Wednesday in which Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-New Mexico, said the plan would come at a huge financial cost with little likelihood of success.
Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, put things more bluntly.
“I suspect Trump supporters would be equally happy with a big statue of a middle finger pointed south,” he said. “It’s just as effective as a national security strategy.”
But others in Congress welcomed the president’s use of his executive authority.
Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, said he was “extremely pleased” with Trump’s orders. They do not require congressional approval, but Biggs said Congress needs to take the next step and put the actions into law so they cannot be easily reversed by a future president.
“While President Trump’s action today is a welcome policy change for the executive branch, another administration could completely undo the rule of law with an executive order,” Biggs said in a statement from his office. “It is up to Congress to ensure that legislation to protect our border and protect American citizens is passed and sent to the president’s desk to be signed permanently into law.”
For Mendoza and Ronnebeck, the signing was the latest step in their years-long fight for secure borders that began after the deaths of their sons.
Grant Ronnebeck was working as a clerk at a Mesa convenience store in January 2015 when a man buying cigarettes threw money on the counter then, when Ronnebeck did not count the money fast enough, pointed a gun in his face. Ronnebeck handed cigarettes over but the man shot him point-blank.
Mesa Police Sgt. Brandon Mendoza was driving home from his shift on May 12, 2014, when a drunken driver on the wrong side of the road slammed head-on into his car.
It was later learned that the drunken driver was in this country illegally. The man who shot Ronnebeck was also in this country illegally and had been arrested in California on other criminal charges and released.
For both parents, their sons’ deaths brought on a mix of grieving, political activism and community outreach.
Mendoza said she began doing research on crimes committed by undocumented immigrants and wrote to former President Barack Obama, who she said did not respond. She then began connecting with other parents affected by crimes committed by undocumented immigrants.
“People have to relive it and tell their stories so people understand: This could happen to you,” Mendoza said.
She said she promised her son after the accident that she would fight so that what happened to him would never happen to another child. The orders signed Wednesday are proof that she is on her way to achieving that goal, Mendoza said.
But watching them being signed was also an emotional experience for her: She said she felt Brandon “hugging me, and I could not stop crying.” It was like he was saying, “way to go Mom. What you’ve been fighting for has finally happened,” she said.
“I could not ask for a better day in D.C.,” Mendoza said.