Making another case for a U.S.-Mexico border wall in his State of the Union address, President Donald Trump painted El Paso, Texas, as an “extremely” violent city before the federal government erected a fence 10 years ago. But crime statistics show Trump is wrong.
Trump is visiting El Paso on Monday for his first rally of 2019 – as he continues to try to rally support for the wall, but local leaders are calling the President out for falsely characterizing one of America’s safest big cities.
“The border city of El Paso, Texas, used to have extremely high rates of violent crime — one of the highest in the entire country, and considered one of our nation’s most dangerous cities,” Trump said last Tuesday during his annual address. “Now, immediately upon its building, with a powerful barrier in place, El Paso is one of the safest cities in our country. Simply put, walls work and walls save lives. So let’s work together, compromise, and reach a deal that will truly make America safe.”
Jon Barela, CEO of the Borderplex Alliance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to economic development and policy advocacy in El Paso and other border cities, says Trump does not have his facts straight when it comes to El Paso.
“Like most of us, we were very surprised by Mr. Trump’s assertion that El Paso had been one of the most dangerous cities in the United States,” Barela tells TIME. “[W]e were astounded by the assertion that somehow a border fence magically transformed El Paso into one of the safest cities in the country. We’ve been safe for decades, long before a border fence was put up and I think I speak for most of us in the region, [we] were pretty surprised by the false assertion.”
Barela, a life-long Republican and former New Mexico assistant attorney general, says that everyone in El Paso wants effective border security, but that a wall is not the answer.
“We all desire border security, it’s a bipartisan goal,” he said. “However border security is a multidimensional, multilateral challenge. There is no silver bullet and a wall is the biggest waste of taxpayer dollars and will have the least effect. It is the most antiquated and most expensive solution to border security.”
El Paso’s Republican mayor, Dee Margo, also weighed in on the night of the State of the Union to dispute Trump’s characterization of his city tweeting, “El Paso was never one of the most dangerous cities in the U.S.”
Peter Svarzbein, an El Paso city representative tells TIME that Trump’s State of the Union comments were “insulting” to El Pasonans.
“It’s this incorrect paradigm and narrative of the border that really uses our community as a prop to further his political propaganda and 2020 campaign,” he says. “If he were to come to El Paso with an open mind, he would see a community that thrives not in spite but because of our relationship with our sister city Juarez.”
According to Svarzbein, an open border that allows people to travel back and forth for business and recreation is what makes El Paso a thriving city. He says that, if anything, Trump and the federal government should focus their energy on beefing up legal ports of entries, which he says are seriously underfunded and understaffed.
“The unfortunate part is that the fantasy of the wall has clouded any rational conversation about the real needs and necessities of our communities and our country,” Svarzbein says. “We do not need to be spending billions of dollars on infrastructure that is not going to make a difference and is proven to do so, we need to invest in infrastructure that can increase economic opportunities. To keep our border safe we need to have a border that’s prosperous for both our countries.”
As Trump prepares to speak at the 6,500-capacity El Paso County Coliseum Monday, Democrat and El Paso native Beto O’Rourke – who ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in Texas in 2018 – said he plans to join a march against the wall in the city on the same day.
As the El Paso Times pointed out, President Trump’s claims about crime in El Paso may have stemmed from a January round table meeting in McAllen, Texas. During the meeting, Trump was shown multiple weapons and drugs that were seized at legal ports of entry – seemingly contradicting his theory that the border wall is needed to stop drugs from flowing into the country. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton also attended the meeting and told President Trump that the border fence helped reduce crime in the Texas border city.
“El Paso used to have one of the highest crime rates in America,” Paxton told Trump at the meeting.”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.”
But Alex Piquero, a professor of criminology at the University of Texas-Dallas, tells TIME that government data is conclusive that the crime drop in El Paso came before the construction of the barrier.
In fact, FBI crime figures show that El Paso was already the third-safest large city in America in the years before the barrier was completed in 2009.
According to the FBI, Violent crime in El Paso reached its peak in 1993 with the El Paso Police Department reporting 6,100 violent crimes, which include murder, robbery, aggravated assault and rape. By 2006, violent crime had dropped by 60%, with 2,400 reported. This sharp decrease in violent crime in El Paso coincided with stepped up border security, but it also mirrors a national trend of falling crime rates in cities during that time.
“El Paso’s crime rate continued to go down all the way through the good part of the 2000s and the 2010s,” Piquero says. “So the biggest drop in the El Paso crime rate occurred prior to El Paso creating their barrier. That’s a fact.”
Although the President only has a rally on his schedule, Barela says he hopes that Trump will take the time to talk to local leaders and learn more about the actual situation at the border.
“We welcome the President’s visit and we hope that he will understand that the region is a model for job creation, border security and strength through bilateral ties with our southern neighbors,” he says.