El Paso Residents Dispute Trump's Claim That Border Barrier Made City Safer

Feb 10, 2019
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Congress has until Friday to reach a compromise on border security and avoid another government shutdown. Senator Richard Shelby, Republican chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told Fox News that negotiations are stalled.

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RICHARD SHELBY: I'll say 50/50 we get a deal. I hope and pray we do.

MARTIN: President Trump continues to insist on billions of dollars for a border wall. And tomorrow, he'll argue his case in El Paso, Texas. In his State of the Union speech, the president falsely described El Paso as one of the nation's most dangerous cities before a border wall was built there. As Monica Ortiz Uribe reports, that remark prompted a backlash from local officials from both parties.

MONICA ORTIZ URIBE, BYLINE: El Paso's Republican mayor tweeted that the city was never among America's most dangerous places. The local sheriff called Trump's attempt to justify a border wall sad. And El Paso's freshman congresswoman, Veronica Escobar, told C-SPAN that the president had lied.

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VERONICA ESCOBAR: We were safe long before a wall was ever built.

URIBE: FBI statistics show El Paso's crime rate declined sharply in the early 1990s. The city didn't get a border wall - at least, not the high-grade steel variety - until 2008. Even then, Carlos Carrillo, a 20-year veteran of the El Paso Police, says the wall isn't solely responsible for the city's safety.

CARLOS CARILLO: I always compare it to the fire sprinklers, the smoke sensors that we have on our homes. That's just a tool. But is it going to stop the fire? No, it's not.

URIBE: The border wall did reduce cross-border thieves and drug mules, who took advantage of densely urban areas where the U.S. and Mexico are separated by less than a quarter mile. Now most illegal drugs come through ports of entry.

FERNANDO GARCIA: The wall that we need is a wall of law enforcement in the community working together to stand strong against crime.

URIBE: That's a goal Fernando Garcia, director of the Border Network for Human Rights, has been working toward for more than a decade. His organization hosts neighborhood forums with area cops and Border Patrol agents meant to spur dialogue and build trust. In 2000, his organization collected 150 reports of abuse by local law enforcement. By 2013, the number of abuse reports dropped to 20.

GARCIA: I believe that this is an important part of making El Paso safe - the fact that a family can report crime and abuse and doesn't feel fear, and they don't feel fear about doing that. For us, that is the metric of success.

URIBE: Garcia is afraid that Trump's aggressive enforcement policies could erode that progress.

GARCIA: Instead of seeing those immigrants and those families as members of our community, now agents or officers - you start seeing them as a threat.

URIBE: The president regularly highlights heinous crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. But study after study shows that on average, cities with large immigrant populations tend to be safer. Sociologist Cristina Morales says that in El Paso, a bilingual city with strong ties to Mexico, the immigrant experience endures across multiple generations.

CRISTINA MORALES: The immigrant memory is not a very far away memory for us. It's constantly being revived. And sort of - I think it keeps us grounded.

URIBE: A coalition of 40 local organizations opposed to Trump's border wall is hosting an event tomorrow night right across the street from the president's rally. It'll be led by El Paso native and possible 2020 presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke.

For NPR News, I'm Monica Ortiz Uribe in El Paso. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.