Donald Trump has started a whirlwind visit to California to promote his immigration crackdown in a bastion of resistance to his administration, sparking widespread protests and warnings that he was in enemy territory.
Air Force One landed at a marine corps air station in Miramar, outside San Diego, on Tuesday morning, heralding Trump’s first presidential visit to the US’s most populous state.
He inspected prototypes of his proposed border wall at Otay Mesa, just yards from the border with Mexico, while a mile down the road police in riot gear separated rival groups of demonstrators chanting for and against Trump.
“For the people that say no wall, if you didn’t have walls over here, you wouldn’t even have a country,” Trump said, repeating a line from his campaign.
The US needed a strong border to stop criminals and terrorists who daily tried to infiltrate, he said. “Truly our first line of defense … it’ll save thousands of live. The state of California is begging us to build walls in certain areas. They don’t tell you that.”
Trump expressed preference for a see-through wall to let Border Patrol monitor the other side. He asked an official which of the eight prototypes was hardest to scale. “These are like professional mountain climbers,” he said of border-jumpers.
He also assailed the state’s governor Jerry Brown as soft on crime and illegal migration.
Heavy security corralled protests on both sides of the border, a scene expected to be repeated in Los Angeles where Trump was due to attend a GOP fundraiser in the evening.
No president since Franklin Roosevelt has waited this long to visit California and Trump did so trailing upheaval in Washington – where he had just fired secretary of state Rex Tillerson – and unprecedented confrontation with the US’s west coast economic powerhouse.
Democrats, who dominate statewide posts and the legislature in Sacramento, poured scorn on their visitor even before he touched down.
“Some people think that medieval walls might keep us safe in this country,” Xavier Becerra, the attorney general, told reporters. It would be good only to deter knights on horses, he said.
Gavin Newsom, the lieutenant general who is running for governor, released an animated video caricaturing Trump and his slogan, “Make America great again”, as “Make America white again”.
“Donald Trump finally worked up the nerve to visit California, bringing his fear-of-everything agenda with him,” Newsom said in a voiceover. “Let’s get real. Donald Trump’s border wall is a monument to idiocy.”
Community and Latino groups rallied in and around San Diego and the Mexican city of Tijuana, which abuts the border. Police restricted demonstrators near the wall prototypes to a “free speech zone” and banned potential weapons including glass containers, rocks, slingshots, knives and guns.
Members of the US secret service were reportedly in Tijuana in recent days coordinating security with Mexican authorities. A protest on the Mexican side of the San Ysidro point of entry passed off peacefully in the morning. Others were expected.
Trump lost California to Hillary Clinton by 4.3 million votes, costing him the national popular vote, but red pockets in the state cheer the president’s vow to build a wall and to expel undocumented migrants.
Dozens of supporters gathered near the prototypes to greet him with American flags, red hats and signs saying “Secure our border” and “Build the damn wall”.
The visit is expected to play well with Trump supporters across the country who see California as a criminal-coddling, tax-hiking liberal dystopia.
Californian Republicans running for Congress in November’s midterm elections however are expected to steer clear of the president to avoid further alienating voters in tottering GOP redoubts.
The White House seemed to stoke tension before the visit. Last week the justice department sued California, alleging it is interfering with the enforcement of immigration laws.
The attorney general, Jeff Sessions, ratcheted up the temperature further by accusing the state’s Democratic leaders of violating the constitution. Governor Brown shot back by calling Sessions a liar and accusing him of “going to war” with California.
On Monday James Schwab, the San Francisco spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice), a federal agency, resigned over what he described as “false” and “misleading” statements by Trump officials in relation to “criminal aliens” supposedly evading arrest.
After inspecting the wall prototypes Trump was due to address troops at the marine corps air station at Miramar before flying to LA for a closed-door event in Beverly Hills that was expected to raise $5m for the Republican National Committee. Police sealed off parts of downtown in anticipation of protests by immigrant, LGBTQ and other advocacy groups.