El Paso wants Trump to see the real bor­der

Res­i­dents say wall is tran­scended by cross-bor­der spirit

Baltimore Sun - - NATION & WORLD - By Will Weissert

EL PASO, Texas — People walk­ing over the Paso del Norte Bridge link­ing this West Texas bor­der city to Mex­ico can watch Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s bor­der wall get­ting big­ger in real time.

Work­ers in flu­o­res­cent vests can be seen dig­ging trenches, pour­ing con­crete and erect­ing rust-colored slabs of 18-foot-high metal to re­place lay­ers of barbed wire-topped fenc­ing along t he mud- colored Rio Grande, which is usu­ally lit­tle more than a trickle.

Most of the more than 70,000 people who legally cross four city bridges daily — to shop, go to school and work — pay the con­struc­tion in the heart of down­town no mind. But on a re­cent week­day, one man stopped and pointed, say­ing sim­ply “Trump.”

In his State of the Union ad­dress, the pres­i­dent said a “pow­er­ful bar­rier” had cut crime rates and turned El Paso from one of the na- tion’s most dan­ger­ous cities to one of its safest. He’s hold­ing a rally here Mon­day to show why he’s de­mand­ing more than 100 miles of new walls, cost­ing $5.7 bil­lion, along the 1,900-mile bor­der, de­spite op­po­si­tion from Democrats and some Repub­li­cans in Con­gress.

But many in this city of desert winds and blis­ter­ing salsa, bris­tle at the prospect of their home be­com­ing a bor­der wall poster child.

It’s had bor­der bar­ri­ers for decades, but that isn’t why it’s a safe place, they say. El Paso, pop­u­la­tion around 800,000, al­ready had one of the low­est vi­o­lent crime rates in the U.S. That’s de­spite be­ing just across the bor­der from drug vi­o­lence-plagued Ci­u­dad Juarez, Mex­ico.

They ar­gue that El Paso em­bod­ies a cross-bor­der spirit that tran­scends walls rather than prov­ing more are needed.

“The rich­est of the rich, the poor­est of the poor, we all have dif­fer­ent rea­sons for want­ing to cross, and people cross ev­ery day,” said El Paso City Coun­cil mem­ber Peter Svarzbein.

El Paso lays bare the mixed feel­ings the bor­der in­spires. Even na­tive Beto O’Rourke, a for­mer Demo­cratic con­gress­man now mulling a pres­i­den­tial run, says bar­ri­ers are in­evitable but that Trump’s calls for an ex­panded wall are the “cyn­i­cal rhetoric of war, of in­va­sions, of fear.”

O’Rourke will help lead a Mon­day evening march op­pos­ing the wall with dozens of lo­cal civic, hu­man rights and Latino groups at the same time Trump is hold­ing his rally. Or­ga­niz­ers ex­pect thou­sands to turn out.

“While some try to stoke fear and para­noia, El Paso will come to­gether for a march and cel­e­bra­tion that high­lights the truth,” O’Rourke said in a state­ment.

Wors­en­ing eco­nomic prob­lems in Mex­ico in­creased the flow of im­mi­grants in the 1970s, prompt­ing Con­gress to ap­prove chain-link fenc­ing here and in San Diego. More bar­ri­ers were added in the 1990s and 2006.

Pub­lic re­ac­tion to the se­cu­rity mea­sures ini­tially was pos­i­tive. But many res­i­dents now com­plain that Trump’s de­mands have gone too far, mak­ing their home sound like a war zone and of­fend­ing both them and people from Mex­ico.

“The bor­der is fluid cul­tur­ally, eco­nom­i­cally,” said Ce­sar Blanco, a Demo­cratic law­maker who lives a stone’s throw from the wall. “We are a bi­na­tional com­mu­nity.”

Those who live near the wall say they see few people climb­ing the bar­ri­ers now. In fis­cal year 2017, about 25,000 people were ap­pre­hended in Bor­der Pa­trol’s El Paso sec­tor, down from 122,000-plus in fis­cal year 2006.

In­stead, those cross­ing il­le­gally now tend to do so out­side the city in des­o­late deserts where deaths from ex­po­sure have risen. Democrats ar­gue that elec­tronic sen­sors and pa­trols are a more ef­fec­tive answer for ad­di­tional bor­der se­cu­rity.

The de­mand for more and big­ger walls has be­come “the supreme sym­bol of racism,” said Fer­nando Gar­cia, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Bor­der Net­work for Hu­man Rights in El Paso. “Ob­vi­ously he’ll have some people at­tend his rally,” he said of Trump, but “he can­not lie about what we’re about.”

The FBI’s Uni­form Crime Re­port shows that El Paso’s an­nual num­ber of re­ported vi­o­lent crimes dropped from nearly 5,000 in 1995 to around 2,700 in 2016. But that corre- sponded to sim­i­lar de­clines in vi­o­lent crime na­tion­wide and in­cluded times when the city’s crime rates ac­tu­ally in­creased year-overyear, de­spite new fenc­ing and walls.

Dee Margo, El Paso’s mayor and a for­mer Republ i can state l aw­maker, tweeted af­ter the State of the Union that his city was “NEVER one of the MOST dan­ger­ous cities in the U.S.,” adding that bor­der walls are only partly the rea­son.

“I’m re­ally glad Pres­i­dent Trump is com­ing here,” he said in a sub­se­quent in­ter­view. “I just hope we get chance to show him what it’s re­ally like on the bor­der.”

ERIC GAY/AP

Work­ers place sec­tions of metal wall along the bor­der near down­town El Paso.

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