El Paso bris­tles at Trump's claim that wall made city safe

El Dorado News-Times - - Viewpoint -

EL PASO, Texas (AP) — 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 smocks 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 the 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 in El Paso. 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 dusty desert winds and blis­ter­ing salsa, bris­tle at the prospect of their home be­com­ing a bor­der wall poster child.

Trump said bar­ri­ers turned El Paso from one of the na­tion's most dan­ger­ous cities to one of its safest, but that's not true. El Paso, pop­u­la­tion around 800,000, had a mur­der rate less than half the na­tional av­er­age in 2005, a year be­fore the most re­cent ex­pan­sion of its bor­der fence. That's de­spite be­ing just across the bor­der from drug vi­o­lence-plagued Ci­u­dad Juarez, Mex­ico.

Many res­i­dents say 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 His­panic groups at the same time Trump is hold­ing his rally. Or­ga­niz­ers ex­pect thou­sands to turn out.

"While some try to stoke fear and para­noia, to spread lies and a false nar­ra­tive about the U.S.Mex­ico bor­der and to de­mand a 2,000-mile wall along it at a time of record safety and se­cu­rity, El Paso will come to­gether for a march and cel­e­bra­tion that high­lights the truth," O'Rourke said in a state­ment.

For cen­turies, vir­tu­ally noth­ing but an of­ten eas­ily wad­able Rio Grande stood be­tween the city and Juarez. But wors­en­ing eco­nomic prob­lems in Mex­ico in­creased the flow of im­mi­grants into the United States in the 1970s, prompt­ing Congress to ap­proved chain-link fenc­ing here and in San Diego dubbed the "Tor­tilla Cur­tain." More bar­ri­ers were added in the 1990s and 2006.

Pub­lic re­ac­tion to the se­cu­rity mea­sures ini­tially was pos­i­tive in some quar­ters be­cause it helped re­duce va­grancy and petty crime. 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.'"

Many Re­pub­li­cans, though, in­sist the low crime rate here is not a co­in­ci­dence.

"There are reg­u­lar shootouts near the bor­der, dan­ger­ous nar­cotics traf­ficked," said re­cently elected Re­pub­li­can Con­gress­man Chip Roy, who rep­re­sents a district be­tween Austin and San An­to­nio. "The good news is that we can stop this," Roy said in a post-State of the Union fundrais­ing email cham­pi­oning a Trump-backed wall.

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 cor­re­sponded to sim­i­lar de­clines in vi­o­lent crime na­tion­wide and in­cluded times when the city's crime rates ac­tu­ally in­creased year-over-year, de­spite new fenc­ing and walls.

The tow­er­ing bar­ri­ers don't stop Juarez from al­most seem­ing like an­other neigh­bor­hood in El Paso. From many places, you can see white city buses rum­bling on the other side of the bor­der and read green street signs mark­ing that city's ma­jor thor­ough­fares in Span­ish. Build­ings more than a few sto­ries tall in El Paso have sweep­ing views of down­town Juarez.

Mickie Su­bia's sin­glestory home in the his­toric, down­town Chi­huahuita neigh­bor­hood is steps from the bar­rier, pro­vid­ing glimpses of Mex­ico through fenc­ing and metal slats. She said the wall doesn't make her feel safer.

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