I visited El Paso this week and learned a lot about Donald Trump's border wall

Locals put low crime down to excellent policing and growing prosperity, as well as flourishing relations between the civic leaderships of the adjoining cities

David Usborne
El Paso, Texas
Saturday 20 January 2018 10:35 GMT
El Paso has lower crime than Detroit, St Louis and Baltimore
El Paso has lower crime than Detroit, St Louis and Baltimore (Reuters)

My day done, it’s time to seek vittles in Anson 11, a swanky restaurant in the Anson Mills building in downtown El Paso, only the second concrete-framed skyscraper in all the United States when it was built in 1911. Prosperous then, the city has had its ups and downs for sure, but tonight all is buzzing. Filled with diners, the restaurant has just one seat left, a stool at the bar. I take it.

So much for the wild west frontier town we are told to expect. I am but a short walk from the border with Mexico and the much larger city, in population terms, of Ciudad Juarez, yet no one here, even after dark, is afraid for their security. No bandits lurk in the alleyways.

That El Paso boasts one of the lowest rates of crime of any city in America, including a homicide rate that is far below that of St Louis, Baltimore, Detroit or New Orleans, is a point of deep pride here. They put it down to excellent policing, growing prosperity, as well as flourishing relations between the civic leaderships of the adjoining cities.

John Kelly says Donald Trump has changed his view on the border wall

So when Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House spokesperson, took to Twitter (of course) the day I arrived to suggest that El Paso should be taken as Exhibit A in support of building a new mega-wall along the entire border with Mexico, the reaction here was, well, indignant.

No topic is more fraught in Washington DC than immigration policy. There is the fight right now over Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era programme giving protection from deportation to about 700,000 young people who were brought into this country illegally by their parents when they were young children, known as Dreamers, and the programme is set to expire unless Congress agrees to keep it going.

And then there is Donald Trump’s confounded wall. John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, was caught privately telling a group of Democrats on the Hill last week that the President was “not informed” when he vowed to build it back in 2016 and described his thinking as “evolving” on the topic. Trump was not amused. “The Wall is the Wall, it has never changed or evolved from the first day I conceived of it,” he responded on Twitter at 6:15am (local time) on Thursday morning.

At least he can rely on Huckabee Sanders to stay on message. Her tweet referenced an opinion article by a conservative columnist in Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post arguing that El Paso’s low crime has everything to do with the 18-foot metal fence that already marks the border here. “Ask El Paso, Texas (now one of America’s safest cities) across the border from Juarez, Mexico (one of the world’s most dangerous) if a wall works,” she wrote.

So I did. First, folk here would like to call out some errors of fact. The drop in crime here easily pre-dated the fence going up in 2008. The Post article, headlined, “This town is proof that Trump’s wall can work”, talks of the fence protecting El Pasoans from the “high-crime Mexican city of Juarez”. But there has been a rapid decline in crime on that side of the border, too.

“Long before the border fence was built, El Paso boasted some of the safest crime statistics in the entire country,” Jon Barela, CEO of the Borderplex Alliance, a group fostering economic development on both sides of the frontier, told me. “Our public safety record is attributable to our culture, our people, and the tireless work of law enforcement officers.”

It also has to do with binding El Paso and Juarez economically, he added, not dividing them. “The bottom line is that when people are deprived of jobs and economic opportunity they will always seek a way to provide for their families and no physical barrier, no matter how wide or tall, will stop them, even if it means sadly turning to illegal activities like drug trafficking.”

José Rodriguez, a Democrat representing El Paso in the state legislature in Austin, was more forthright, asserting on Facebook that the author of the piece was “cherry picking stats to support lies”. He went on: “The New York Post allowed a columnist to tell lies about (El Paso). Administration press secretary spreads the lie. In other news, the sun rose in the east today.”

Also irritated was Beto O’Rourke, local Congressman and rising Democrat star who hopes to unseat Ted Cruz in the US Senate this year. “Walls have nothing to do with it,” he tweeted. “We’ve been ranked 1st, 2nd or 3rd safest city for last 20 years, including before any wall. In addition to great law enforcement, our safety is connected to the fact that we are a city of immigrants.”

Huckabee Sanders would surely be welcome at Anson 11, but she’d be running the risk of someone asking here where she hails from. That would be Little Rock, Arkansas. Oh, Little Rock, ranked first-, second- and third-least safe city for the last 20 years, give or take a ranking or two. Maybe she’d be better employed worrying about her own hometown before using El Paso as a prop for a proposal from her boss that most folk down here consider misbegotten or worse.

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