Officials in El Paso rebuked President Trump in advance of his visit to the border city on Monday night, assailing the president for falsely crediting the Texas city’s safety to the border fence that was built there 10 years ago.
At a news conference Monday afternoon, Rep. Veronica Escobar (D), who represents the city in Congress, El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego, District Attorney Jaime Esparza, and Commissioner Carlos Leon said Trump’s statements threatened to damage the town’s reputation.
“We’ve worked so hard to have the image of a solid community,” said Samaniego, who noted that his family emigrated to the country in 1911. “Every one of us is touched with the falsehoods that are taking place.”
Trump had made the city a centerpiece of his push for a border wall during the State of the Union address last week, saying that its fence, which was constructed between 2008 and 2010, had reduced violent crime and made El Paso one of the “safest cities in our country.” He repeated the claims during his campaign rally in the city on Monday night.
But Trump’s claims were false. The city’s violent crime peaked in 1993 before declining sharply throughout the 1990s, in line with national trends, and long before the city’s fence was approved by Congress in 2006. From 2006 to 2011 — the period through the two years after it was built, violent crime actually increased 17 percent, according to the El Paso Times.
It was a point that officials underscored on Monday.
“Even if you give president the benefit of the doubt, the fence that was built in 2008 has made really no difference one way or the other,” said Esparza, who has served as district attorney since 1993.
“That statement was entirely untrue and unacceptable to the residents of our great city,” said Leon, the former chief of the El Paso Police Department who served in total for 30 years.
El Paso is the latest border city where the Trump’s tales of lawlessness and peril — storytelling he has revved up in recent months as he has worked to find political support to allocate $5.7 billion for the construction of a border wall — have come crashing headfirst into reality. Last week, officials in the border city of Nogales, Ariz., condemned the six rows of razor wire installed by the military in the area on orders from Trump, saying that the wire — not the border itself — was putting their residents in danger.
In El Paso, the harsh statements at the news conference were coupled with a sharply worded resolution signed by the town’s four commissioners and Samaniego that said Trump’s claims were “yet another lie that was quickly disputed by residents and members of our local law enforcement agencies.”
“Donald Trump has continuously made inaccurate claims about the United States’ southern border, including El Paso,” the resolution said, noting that data from Customs and Border Protection showed that “no crisis exists” on the border, despite Trump’s claims. “The County of El Paso is disillusioned by President Trump’s lies regarding the border and our community, and though it is difficult to welcome him to El Paso while he continues to proliferate such untruths, we do welcome him to meet with local officials to become properly informed about our great and safe region.”
The statement said that Trump had never reached out to local officials or law enforcement agencies to inform himself about the city; instead, he repeated the claim about the danger of the city before the fence during a conference call with officials.
The false statement has drawn rebukes from Republicans as well, including the city’s mayor, Dee Margo, and Jon Barela, the chief executive of the regional development group Borderplex Alliance, who told The Washington Post last week that he feared it could have an effect on the city’s economy.
“This is damaging from an economic development standpoint because it perpetuates the myth that we are a dangerous and lawless frontier,” said Barela, a lifelong Republican. “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.”
Trump’s falsehood appears to have originated in a conversation he had with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a fellow Republican, in early January. Paxton told Trump, who was visiting the state again to drum up support for the wall, the anecdote about El Paso’s high crime rate, saying that “After that fence went up and separated Juarez, which still has an extremely high crime rate, the crime rates in El Paso now are some of the lowest in the country. So we know it works.”
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, who did not return a request for comment, then tweeted a 2018 opinion piece from the New York Post that argued that El Paso was proof of the effectiveness of a border wall. PolitiFact Texas had rated the author’s claims “Half true.”
Escobar said that $90 billion worth of commerce comes through the city’s port of entry with Mexico every year.
El Paso has been listed as one of the country’s safest cities in a number of published ratings for 20 years.
The city of 650,000, which has long been known as one of the country’s safest cities of that size, has been buzzing with the fallout from Trump’s remarks since the State of the Union. The violence in the Mexican city that lies across the border, Ciudad Juárez, has long cast a pall over the town’s reputation.
“Residents here are used to their city being mischaracterized as a war zone by outsiders, an enduring impression that emerged more than a decade ago when its sister city, Ciudad Juárez, was in the throes of cartel and gang violence,” the Texas Tribune wrote. “ … El Pasoans have been striving to set the record straight about their city’s crime rate and its relationship to a ramping up of immigration enforcement dating to the early 1990s.”
On Monday night, Trump highlighted El Paso’s proximity to Juárez and said that the wall was responsible for the difference in crime between the two cities. He called reporting about El Paso’s low crime rate and how it was not connected to the wall “fake news.”
“I don’t care whether a mayor is a Republican or a Democrat, they’re full of crap when they say it hasn’t made a big difference,” he said. “Walls work.”
It is not in dispute that the border fence has cut down the number of illegal crossings, The Post has reported. But the Tribune credited the work of law enforcement, not the structure, with stanching the flow of illegal crossings, pointing to a Border Patrol strategy first employed in 1993. That strategy, it said, involved increasing the number of agents patrolling the front lines of the border, leading to a decline in illegal border crossings. Statistics the Tribune cited showed that the number of apprehensions for illegal crossings dropped from about 285,000 in the El Paso area in 1993 to about 80,000 the next year.
Amid a months-long political struggle to fund Trump’s $5.7 billion border wall, the nation’s focus has increasingly been drawn to the border.
Nearby, former Democratic congressman Beto O’Rourke joined a protest organized by nonprofit groups as well as 60 local musicians to decry Trump’s immigration policies and his characterization of the city.