EL PASO — When President Trump pulls up to the coliseum here in this bustling border city on Monday for his first campaign rally of the year, he will be able to peer out from the parking lot and see Mexico one mile in the distance.
Trump hopes spotlighting the story of El Paso — touting its border fencing and relatively low rate of violent crime — will provide evidence supporting his push for funding for part of a U.S.-Mexico border wall to avoid another shutdown, aides said. He intends to amplify his claim Tuesday night in his State of the Union address that El Paso “used to have extremely high rates of violent crime — one of the highest in the country, and considered one of our nation’s most dangerous cities. Now, with a powerful barrier in place, El Paso is one of our safest cities.”
The trouble for Trump is that his claim about El Paso is simply false. His portrayal of this border city as having been violent and lawless before the installation of fencing has long been an irritant to local civic and business leaders — including hometown politician Beto O’Rourke, the former Democratic congressman who is weighing a presidential campaign against Trump in 2020.
For years, O’Rourke has argued that there is already too much fencing and walling along the southern border, and he sharply criticized Trump and the wall during an interview with The Washington Post on Wednesday.
“I think he knows what he is doing,” O’Rourke said. “I think there has been shown over many years great political reward for those who exploit this by stoking fear and anxiety, by lying to people about immigrants and the nature of the border and the safety and security that we have here.”
O’Rourke continued: “Some people have used code words, some have come at it obliquely. He just full on, in the most racist terms, completely divorced from the truth or facts or reality or our experience here in El Paso, uses this to incite fear and paranoia and turn that to political gain.”
By staging his first “Make America Great Again” rally of the 2020 cycle in this Texas border city, Trump is signaling that his fight for a wall and push to end illegal immigration will be central to his reelection hopes.
Trump’s campaign advisers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said O’Rourke’s hometown status did not influence the president’s decision to visit El Paso; one of them called it “a funny coincidence.” But his visit nonetheless will serve as a preview of the political battle to come — against O’Rourke or any like-minded Democratic candidate.
Trump is headed to a city that is dominated by liberals. He won just 25.7 percent of the vote in the county, the worst performance on record for a major party presidential nominee.
Over the past month, Trump repeatedly has cited El Paso’s “overnight” transformation from one of the most dangerous cities in the country to one of the safest as proof that a physical barrier at the border — constructed here in 2008 and 2009 in the form of fences — helps reduce violent crime. The president has been repeating the line since Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton made a similar statement during Trump’s Jan. 10 visit to the border in McAllen, Texas.
For the past 20 years, a number of published ratings have listed El Paso as one of the nation’s safest cities, and FBI statistics show that, like most major U.S. cities, El Paso’s crime rate has been dropping since the mid-1990s.
The city’s rate of violent crime reached its peak in 1993, when more than 6,500 violent crimes were recorded, and that number fell by more than 34 percent over the next 13 years, according to an analysis of crime data by the El Paso Times. From two years before the fencing was built, in 2006, to two years after, in 2011, the violent crime rate increased by 17 percent, the newspaper reported.
By contrast, Ciudad Juárez, El Paso’s Mexican sister city just across the border, has at times been one of the deadliest cities in the world and saw an increase in crime last year. There were 543 murders in Juárez in 2016, 773 in 2017 and more than 1,100 last year, according to a tally kept by local media.
There is no dispute that the border fencing has cut down the number of illegal border crossings into El Paso, but local leaders said it is false to suggest the barrier had an impact on violent crime.
Jon Barela, who as chief executive of the Borderplex Alliance leads El Paso’s regional development efforts, accused Trump of lying about El Paso’s safety.
“This is damaging from an economic development standpoint because it perpetuates the myth that we are a dangerous and lawless frontier. The fact of the matter is that El Paso and most of the cities on the U.S.-Mexico border boast among the safest crime statistics in the entire country,” said Barela, a lifelong Republican who narrowly lost a 2010 congressional race in neighboring New Mexico.
Rep. Veronica Escobar (D), who was elected to fill O’Rourke’s seat this year, said she was sending Trump a letter ahead of his visit asking him to correct the record.
“El Paso has been safe since the 1990s, has always been among the safest cities in America— a wall did not make any difference,” Escobar said. “Secondly, I believe he owes the community an apology. This misinformation is damaging and it’s hurtful.”
During Trump’s State of the Union speech, Escobar tweeted, “He lies.” She was seen on camera with an incredulous look on her face and appeared to be mouthing a Spanish phrase that is a less polite version of “You’re kidding me.” Her reaction has been celebrated by Latino progressives.
Trump has some defenders here, including Adolpho Telles, El Paso’s Republican Party chairman, who said he believed Trump had complimented the city.
“To state that El Paso’s one of the safest cities in the nation, that is extremely positive because it lets people know that the city has reacted and the reaction has been positive,” said Telles, who owns Rosa’s Cantina, the bar made famous in the Marty Robbins song “El Paso.”
Trump will speak Monday night at the El Paso County Coliseum, an aging venue that can seat 5,000 to 6,000 people depending on configuration and in recent years has been primarily used for minor league hockey, rodeo and Mexican music acts. It’s just over a mile to the Bridge of the Americas, which is El Paso’s largest international crossing.
O’Rourke has used his large social media following to try to promote the image of El Paso. He interviewed fellow residents in Instagram videos about the safety of their communities. He also posted snippets of video of him and his wife and three children walking to Juárez for dinner on a Saturday night, passing street musicians and colorful shops.
In January, O’Rourke spoke at length with The Post about Trump and his border security policies. He said the president was part of “a long tradition of xenophobic, jingoistic, fearmongering, hateful people, racist leaders who seek to stoke your ignorance because you don’t live near the border, stoke fear and anxiety and exploit your ignorance about the border.”
As he led a Post reporter on a tour of the border in El Paso, O’Rourke said security there was already “past the point of diminishing returns” and that existing walls and fencing near urban areas have pushed migrants seeking to cross illegally into more desolate and dangerous territory.
“You will ensure death,” O’Rourke said of Trump’s proposed wall. “You and I as Americans have caused the deaths of others through these walls.”
In December, Felipe Gomez Alonzo, an 8-year-old Guatemalan boy who entered the country with his father, died in the custody of Customs and Border Protection. They crossed into the country in the El Paso area, and Escobar said she is encouraging Trump to visit the crossing and meet with humanitarian and legal aid workers.
“I think he needs to speak to a family seeking asylum,” Escobar said. “I don’t know that he’s ever gotten a personal perspective from them, and that is key to really understanding what people are going through.”
It is unclear whether Trump will take the congresswoman up on her advice. For now, the only announced stop on the president’s visit to El Paso is his campaign rally.
Moore and Johnson reported from El Paso. Rucker reported from Washington.