EL PASO, Texas — President Donald Trump came to this bustling border city Monday to rally support for his wall with Mexico. But he was met by El Paso’s favorite son, Beto O’Rourke, who denounced Trump’s claim that walls reduce violent crime and led the city’s residents in his own boisterous show of opposition.
The dueling rallies, just across the Rio Grande from Mexico, offered a vivid snapshot of the national debate over immigration, as well as a tantalizing early glimpse of the rivalry between Trump and O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman who is now considering a challenge to the president in 2020.
As he mulls a run for the Democratic presidential nomination, O’Rourke has seized on immigration as a defining issue. With a flair for political theater that even Trump took note of, O’Rourke addressed a crowd less than a mile from the El Paso County Coliseum, where the president spoke to thousands of cheering supporters.
“We are not safe because of walls, but in spite of walls,” O’Rourke said, speaking to supporters within earshot of Trump’s rally. “We have so much to give, so much to show the rest of the country.”
Inside the arena, Trump was flanked by banners that said, “Finish the Wall,” and he faced a sea of red and blue signs urging him to “Build the Wall.”
“We need the wall, and it has to be built,” Trump said, adding, “Today we started building the big beautiful wall right on the Rio Grande.”
Trump’s rally, his first since an acrimonious debate over funding of the wall shut down the government, came as negotiators in Washington appeared to reach a deal, potentially averting another shutdown. The president said he was told about the agreement just before taking the stage.
“We probably have some good news,” Trump said, but said he told his aides, “I don’t even want to hear about it.”
In an interview with Laura Ingraham of Fox News that aired at the end of the rally, Trump seemed more concerned with talking about the number of supporters in the crowd Monday night than about an update on negotiations with Congress over his demand for a border wall.
The president said he had the option of receiving a briefing on the negotiations or going on camera.
“It was between the deal and you, and I had to choose you,” Trump said. “They’re talking, and we’ll see what happens.”
The president’s choice of El Paso to make his argument was curious on several grounds. Violent crime actually declined for years in this vibrant immigrant city across the river from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, before the Army Corps of Engineers began building a fence in 2008. It rose during the two years before and after the barrier was constructed.
A Democratic stronghold in a mostly Republican state, El Paso has long been one of the safer cities of its size in the United States — a trend that local law enforcement officials attribute to the residents and community policing, not to the border fence.
Still, if Trump wanted to force the debate with Democrats, he could hardly have chosen a better place. The presence of O’Rourke, who represented the city in Congress before he gave up his House seat to run unsuccessfully for the Senate, guaranteed the president the kind of confrontation he relishes, even if the two men did not come face to face.
Trump lost little time in ridiculing O’Rourke, describing him as “a young man who’s got very little going for himself, except he’s got a good first name.”
“He’s supposed to win in order to run,” the president added. “Beto was defeated.”
Trump’s discursive style delighted his crowd, though protesters heckled him more frequently than at other rallies since he became president. After one protester was escorted out of the arena to a chorus of boos from the crowd, the president asked, “Is there any place that’s more fun to be than a Trump rally?”
Trump has insisted that El Paso was an example of why a wall is necessary.
“Walls work,” he said, repeating his assertion that the crime rate went down in El Paso after the border wall was built. “Thanks to a border wall with Mexico,” he said, El Paso is “one of America’s safest cities.”
O’Rourke debunked that claim Friday in a lengthy post on the website Medium, in which he also tried to set out an alternative blueprint for overhauling the nation’s immigration laws. El Paso’s success, he said, repudiated Trump’s call for a border wall.
“He will promise a wall and will repeat his lies about the dangers that immigrants pose,” O’Rourke said of the president.
O’Rourke has spotlighted his heavily Latino hometown on Facebook and on other social media sites as an example of what works in immigration policy.
A short walk from the coliseum, protesters gathered to march in a show of dissent against the president. Many held signs criticizing Trump; buttons, signs and stickers proclaiming “Beto 2020” could be seen throughout the crowd.
“Trump is an insult to my proud military family,” said Isabel Harris, 60, an immigrant from Mexico who held a sign honoring her son Martin Ferrufino, 32, a disabled veteran of the Iraq War.
Harris said Trump’s efforts to curb immigration was an affront to her son, who crossed the border illegally as a child. Later, he attended high school in El Paso and joined the Army.
“My son sacrificed for this country, and this is how he’s treated? How we are treated?” Harris said in Spanish.
Nearby, two El Paso-born brothers, Adam and Andrew Peña, also joined the protest against Trump.
“Trump thinks he can rule us by fear,” said Adam Peña, 31, a lawyer who lives in San Diego and traveled to El Paso to voice his opposition. “I’m here to prove him wrong.”
Trump got the idea to focus on El Paso from an exchange with the Texas attorney general, Ken Paxton, who told him the wall drastically reduced the city’s crime rate and therefore served as a persuasive argument for building one along more of the southwestern border.
“After that fence went up and separated Juárez, which still has an extremely high crime rate, the crime rates in El Paso are now some of the lowest in the country,” Paxton said. “So we know it works.”
While it is true that Juárez has a much higher crime rate than El Paso — and while the fence did cut down on illegal crossings — the rest of his statement is, at best, highly misleading.
The El Paso Times, which analyzed three decades of statistics from the FBI and the local police, found that crime peaked in 1993, with more than 6,500 violent crimes recorded. It then dropped by 34 percent over the next 13 years.
The crime rate then increased by 17 percent from 2006 to 2011. Construction of the wall began in 2008, under President George W. Bush, and was completed in mid-2009, during the Obama administration. Crime has ebbed and flowed within a fairly narrow band since then.
Local officials, including Mayor Dee Margo, a Republican, have spoken out against Trump’s claims. Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Democrat who recently won O’Rourke’s former seat, has demanded that the president apologize and meet with migrant families seeking asylum in the United States. Among lawmakers who represent border districts, there is remarkably little support for a wall.
Yet Trump has been undeterred. He repeated grisly stories of violent crimes committed by illegal immigrants — never mind that the crime rate among immigrants is no higher than among native-born residents. He said a wall would stem the flow of deadly opioids and other illicit drugs into the United States — another dubious assertion, given that most drugs arrive at legal ports of entry.
Trump’s aides are trying to build momentum after last week’s State of the Union address, which they believe was well received by his political base. Unlike some of his predecessors, the president did not immediately leave on a road trip to sell the messages in the address. But he has been eager to return to rallies, which energize him and filled up his calendar before the midterm elections.
Trump dismissed those who disputed his facts about the wall, saying the mayor of El Paso was “full of crap,” even if he was a Republican.
“People of El Paso,” he asked, “am I right?”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.