EL PASO, Texas ― Before President Donald Trump’s campaign rally Monday night, local politicians and law enforcement officials lined up to rebut his claims that border fencing had made El Paso one of the safest cities in the U.S. and demanded that he correct the record.
They’re unlikely to wrench an apology from a president who has staked his political legitimacy on building a border wall. The demand that Congress include $5.7 billion to begin work on the wall led to the recent 35-day partial federal government shutdown and may trigger another.
But the El Pasoans’ message, delivered at back-to-back news conferences, was an early rebuttal to the likely screed to come from Trump at a Monday evening event in solidly Democratic territory.
“What has been very frustrating to me ― not just as an elected official but as a proud Paseña, a proud fronteriza ― is that this maligning of our community is used as a tool, a political tool, meant to advance a narrative that isn’t true,” said U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas). “To acknowledge the truth about this community and other border communities like us would mean to acknowledge that we are not inherently bad, we are not inherently unsafe.”
During his State of the Union speech last week, Trump claimed El Paso was one of the country’s most dangerous cities until the government constructed a fence between it and Ciudad Juárez, which is just across the border.
The Trump campaign followed up with a video with various unnamed El Pasoans, one of whom wore a matching “Make America great again” hat and shirt, saying a wall had made the city safer.
In fact, violent crime began its steady decline in El Paso in the 1990s ― well before the Secure Fencing Act of 2007 funded the construction of the city’s current barrier, though more modest fencing existed before that.
County Commissioner Carlos León, the city’s former police chief and a three-decade law enforcement veteran, credited community policing with the gains in fighting violent crime.
“For decades, El Paso has been and continues to be one of the safest cities in the country, due in large part to the work of law enforcement,” León said. “For the president to claim we are safe because of a wall is an insult.”
The confrontation between Trump and El Paso leaders also marks former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s return to the national stage after his maverick Democratic campaign to unseat U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz ended in defeat last fall.
He told reporters on the call that he wanted to support the community groups that organized the march.
“I think he’s here in an effort to use this community as a prop to make his case for the border wall,” O’Rourke told reporters of Trump’s visit. “I’m going to follow the community’s lead.... Nothing less and nothing more.”
O’Rourke derided the president’s demand for a wall, saying that the primary result of building barriers along the border was to push people into more remote and dangerous crossings in the desert.
Beyond the politics of the moment, local leaders cautioned that Trump’s repeated portrayal of El Paso as a city besieged by homicidal drug-trafficking criminals would undermine local efforts to attract businesses to the region.. Escobar faulted Texas officials, including Gov. Greg Abbott (R), for planning to share the stage with him Monday night without correcting the record.
El Paso County District Attorney Jaime Esparza, who has held that position since 1993, said businesses and potential visitors had nothing to worry about, whether or not Congress elects to build more border wall.
“The fence that was built since 2008 really made no difference one way or the other,” Esparza told reporters. “Come to El Paso. This is not a dangerous place. The president is incorrect.”