LAREDO, Texas -- Donald Trump brought his bravado to the U.S.-Mexico border Thursday in a visit the Republican presidential contender said he had to make "despite the great danger."

Trump has branded most Mexicans who cross the border illegally as criminals, such as rapists and drug traffickers, and told reporters, "There is great danger with the illegals, tremendous danger with illegals."

He also bragged that he had "thousands of Latinos working for me" and said "the Latino vote will be very easy" for him to win.

Agents with a local border patrol union had planned to meet with him and accompany Trump to the border, but they canceled after consultations with their national union, the National Border Patrol Council, said Hector Garza, president of Local 2455.

Trump said the agents backed out because they were "petrified and they're afraid of saying what's happening."

A few dozen protesters from Laredo, Texas, whose huge Latino population elects mostly Democrats, stood in front of homes and businesses and outside the Landmark Aviation office at Laredo airport, where Trump's Boeing 757 landed. They snapped pictures and held signs stating, "Trump is a chump!" and "Trump's hair is illegal."

"He's just trying to get publicity coming to a place he's not wanted," said Adolfo Gonzalez, 66, of Laredo, an Army veteran and retired high-school teacher.

But Karina Villalba, 26, a Hispanic oil field worker, waited for Trump at the airport and held a sign saying "I heard your speech & I am NOT offended."

Trump insisted that protesters "were chanting for me."

His remarks about Mexicans crossing the border, made first during his announcement speech last month, prompted many of his most prominent business partners to denounce him and made him a pariah in much of the Latino community.

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The comments also helped him appeal to part of the Republican Party's base, propelling him into the lead in primary polls, worrying establishment Republicans who are trying to broaden the party's demographic appeal.

The National Border Patrol Council said in a statement that it requested the agents it represents not participate in the event because it did not want to appear to be endorsing Trump.

It said Trump's comments last weekend belittling Arizona Sen. John McCain's hero status as a former North Vietnam prisoner of war who was tortured in captivity "are disrespectful not just to the senator, but to all veterans, many of whom serve as Border Patrol agents."

On Fox News Wednesday, Trump said he was going because the border agents "want to honor me." Portraying the trip as personally risky, he said, "I may never see you again but we're going to do it."

Lawmakers and other officials routinely visit the area and tour border facilities at the country's busiest inland port.