Speaking minutes after congressional negotiators in Washington announced that they had an “agreement in principle” on border funding aimed at preventing another government shutdown, President Donald Trump vowed to “finish the wall” Monday night during his first campaign rally of 2019, in El Paso. Trump also seemed to have one eye on another rally across the street, this one organized by El Paso groups opposed to his policy and featuring former congressman and potential presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke.
This marks Trump’s second trip to a Texas border this year. Last month he visited the South Texas city of McAllen in the midst of what would be the longest government shutdown in U.S. history. But Monday’s visit to El Paso was a stark contrast to his earlier visit, as El Paso city leaders seemed prepared to take Trump on regarding his inaccurate claims that El Paso was once one of the country’s most dangerous cities in America until the construction of a border wall. Democratic congresswoman Veronica Escobar, who represents El Paso, denounced Trump’s plans for the wall, as did the city’s Republican mayor, and the El Paso County Commissioners passed a resolution saying they were “disillusioned” with the president’s “lies” about the city.
Trump didn’t say whether he’d support a compromise plan hammered out by House and Senate negotiators that calls for $1.375 billion for fencing and other barriers at the Mexican border, far below the $5.7 billion he has been demanding, but he did hint at circumventing the will of the compromise plan. “They said that progress is being made with this committee. Just so you know, we’re building the wall anyway,” he said to cheers from a capacity crowd of 6,500 inside the El Paso County Coliseum.
The stage was flanked by banners proclaiming “Finish the Wall,” even though the crowd frequently broke into the more familiar “Build the Wall” chant. Trump stressed an updated version of his wall theme almost an hour into his eighty-minute speech. “Security should not belong only to the rich and to the powerful. Safety is the birthright of every American, which is why we must finish the wall,” he said, speaking the last three words slowly.
On several occasions, Trump repeated his false claim that border wall construction is underway. Though some replacement of existing barriers has occurred since he took office, no new barriers have been built. He opened his speech by saying, “I am very, very thrilled to be here in the great state of Texas. Right on the banks of the legendary Rio Grande, where, by the way, I don’t know if you heard, right, today we started a big, beautiful wall right on the Rio Grande, right smack on the Rio Grande.” It’s not clear what Trump was referring to. No new wall construction has been announced on the border, and existing barriers are hundreds of feet from the river.
As he has done previously, Trump hinted at taking action on border barriers without congressional approval. “We’re setting the stage, folks. You know what it’s called, right? It’s called we’re setting the stage. We’re setting the table, we’re doing whatever we have to do. The wall’s being built. It’ll continue. It’s going at a rapid pace,” he said.
Trump came to El Paso six days after his State of the Union speech, repeating many of the themes he laid out in that speech. He hammered Democrats repeatedly throughout his El Paso address. “The Democrat Party has never been more outside of the mainstream. They are becoming the party of socialism, late-term abortion, open borders, and crime,” the president claimed.
In his State of the Union address, Trump falsely claimed that El Paso had been one of the nation’s most violent cities before extensive border barriers were put in place a decade ago. That claim was roundly criticized by El Paso leaders of both major parties, and it was clear Trump had heard the criticism. He didn’t back down on the false claims about El Paso crime on Monday night, though his response was hard to decipher.
“You take a look at what they did with their past crimes and how they made them from very serious to much less serious. You take a look at what the real system is. I spoke to people that have been here a long time. They said when that wall went up, it’s a whole different ballgame. Is that a correct statement?” he said to cheers from the audience. Trump also appeared to say that El Paso mayor Dee Margo, a Republican who has criticized Trump’s statements about El Paso safety, was “full of crap.”
Trump on several occasions referenced O’Rourke, the three-term El Paso congressman who narrowly lost the U.S. Senate race in 2018 to Republican incumbent Ted Cruz. O’Rourke was the lead speaker at a rally at a neighborhood sports complex across the street from Trump. The president seemed particularly sensitive to crowd size, as he often is. He said, “Sixty-nine thousand people signed up to be here. Now the arena holds eight thousand. And thank you, fire department, they got in about ten . . . And if you want to really see something, go outside. Tens of thousands of people are watching screens outside.” Trump said his total crowd was 35,000.
However, the El Paso Fire Department told the El Paso Times it let only 6,500 people into the building for Trump’s rally. Brian Kennedy, who manages the coliseum, told Texas Monthly that about 6,000 people watched the speech on screens set up in the parking lot, putting the total crowd at just over 12,000.
Trump also sought to diminish the size of the rally protesting his appearance, saying it drew about 200 people. El Paso police told Bloomberg News that the march and rally organized by the groups opposing Trump drew 10,000 to 15,000 people. Although O’Rourke did not organize the gathering, it sometimes had the feeling of a rally for his possible presidential campaign.
O’Rourke struck a positive tone throughout his twenty-minute speech, a noticeable contrast to Trump’s often dark portrayal of the border. He sang the praises of such El Pasoans as Marcelino Serna, an undocumented immigrant who joined the U.S. Army during World War I and left the service as the most decorated Texan in that war. Serna, O’Rourke explained, is the namesake of the latest bridge to connect the United States with Mexico at a time when the administration is talking about walls. The bridge is located in the El Paso County town of Tornillo, which was the site of a massive tent city most of last year that housed unaccompanied minor immigrants.
O’Rourke also spoke of a group of Mexican high school baseball players from Bowie High School on the El Paso border who went on to compete for the 1949 state championship in Austin. Hotels refused to accommodate the team, O’Rourke explained, so they slept beneath the bleachers lining the field on which they would play the following day. The team woke up, won their game, and returned to El Paso as state champions.
He told the story of Thelma White, a high school graduate from the city’s only black high school in the fifties. White was denied admission into Texas Western College, now the University of Texas at El Paso, and enlisted the help of a prominent lawyer (and future first African American Supreme Court justice) named Thurgood Marshall, who won a court victory that integrated Texas colleges for the first time.
“With the eyes of the country upon us, all of us together are going to make a stand here in one of the safest cities in the United States of America,” O’Rourke told a cheering crowd. “Safe not because of walls but in spite of walls.”
O’Rourke said El Paso should act as a national compass to demonstrate the moral obligation the United States has to immigrants—as well as the historic judgment that will be made about our country at this time and about how cities like El Paso stood up to national xenophobia.
He reminded the crowd of a Father’s Day march that took place outside the Tornillo tent city decrying the practice of family separation and the vigil that followed outside the facility, in which El Pasoans and others highlighted the detention of more than six thousand children.
He also reminded the crowd of the response on Christmas Eve last year, when the city learned through social media that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement dropped off groups of asylum seekers at the city’s downtown bus station, many without money or food. El Pasoans, he said, ran to the bus station, their own children in tow, to provide comfort and food to the migrants who were legally in the country.
“We’re going to make a stand to ensure that we will live up to our promise,” O’Rourke said. “It’s not just the things that we are against, like this wall. But it is things that we are for. We must make sure that we make room for those asylum seekers to come to our country. We must make sure that no Dreamers should fear deportation. Let’s make them U.S. citizens. And their parents, the original Dreamers, let’s put them on the path to citizenship. Let’s ensure that their genius stays here in the United States.”
O’Rourke moved from English to Spanish several times during his speech and ended in Spanish by saying, “I am proud to be from the border with you.”
The march and rally was the last of several events of the day organized by U.S. representative Veronica Escobar and other El Paso leaders ahead of Trump’s visit. Annunciation House, a nonprofit that has provided shelter and care for migrants in El Paso for more than forty years, brought a number of asylum seekers to a press conference Monday morning to rebut Trump’s characterization that current crossing levels are a security threat.
Those who spoke at the press conference said they came to the United States to seek safety for their families and said they were angered by Trump’s assertions that many families fleeing Central America were criminals. The vast majority of people crossing the border illegally in recent years have been families and unaccompanied children from Central America; most have been allowed to stay legally in the country to pursue asylum claims after passing a credible fear interview and criminal background checks by border agents. Despite the increase in family crossings, the total number of border apprehensions remains near historic lows.
“I’m a mother, and I don’t know, when people look at me, what they see, whether they consider me a criminal,” said Glenda, a woman from Honduras who recently sought asylum in the United States with her husband and two young children. She asked that her last name not be used because she continues to fear for her safety. “All I want to do is protect and save my family. That’s all I want.”
Yeini, another mother from Honduras who asked not to use her last name, came to the United States in October. Her two daughters, ages three and five, were taken from her by Border Patrol agents. She said they didn’t explain why they took her children, who were born in the United States before she was previously deported. They were reunited Friday, after four months of separation. Taylor Levy, the Annunciation House legal director, said Yeini was not charged with any crime by border agents.
When asked what message she had for Trump, Yeini said: “My message for President Trump would be that he gives us an opportunity to be with our children so we can take care of them, so we can protect them. Please. We are begging them that they don’t continue with the separation of the children and that he stops doing so many deportations and that he gives us an opportunity to be here with our children.”
Oscar Vides and his siblings were granted asylum thirty years ago, after their parents were murdered in El Salvador. All are now successful professionals in the United States. Vides lives in El Paso and works for a major national pharmaceutical company. “My message to the president would be, don’t use us as your pawns for political gains,” he said at the Annunciation House press conference. “I’m not a criminal, I’m not a rapist, I’m not a drug dealer. And most of the people that come here are looking for a better life, just like I am, so my family can have a future, just like these people here as well. So please don’t use us. Don’t label us. We’re human beings.”