El Paso bris­tles at wall as­ser­tions

Pres­i­dent ar­gues bar­rier has made city safe again

Las Vegas Review-Journal - - WASHINGTON - By Will Weissert The As­so­ci­ated Press

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 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.

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.”

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

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

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.

Eric Gay The As­so­ci­ated Press

Mickie Su­bia gath­ers her laun­dry Tues­day at her home in El Paso, Texas. Su­bia lives less than a block away from a bor­der bar­rier that runs along the Texas-mex­ico bor­der. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump is vis­it­ing El Paso on Mon­day.

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