When he comes to El Paso on Monday, President Donald Trump will use a location less than a mile from the U.S.-Mexico border to again call for a wall between Mexico and the United States—the El Paso County Coliseum. “As the president continues his fight to secure the border, there’s no better place to demonstrate that walls work than in El Paso,” Michael Glassner, the chief operating officer of the Trump campaign, said in a statement announcing the Monday campaign rally in El Paso.
But when he arrives in El Paso, Trump will be in a city that, perhaps more than any other, is a symbol of his inability to enforce his will on his signature issue of immigration. During his State of the Union address Tuesday, he falsely said that El Paso had one of the nation’s highest violent crime rates before border barriers were put up a decade earlier. He’s pointing to El Paso’s fencing as a model for his border security plans, a change from his campaign vision for border security. “A wall is better than fencing, and it’s much more powerful. It’s more secure. It’s taller,” Trump said in 2015. After making little headway on a border wall two years in office, Trump now offers what he once mocked as a model for securing the border.
El Paso offers other reminders of Trump failures or controversies on the border. In 2017, the Border Patrol’s El Paso sector was the pilot site for the plan to separate children from their parents as a means of deterring migrants from coming to the United States. The El Paso County town of Tornillo was where the administration housed 6,200 children in desert tents because new policies caused an explosion of migrant children in government custody. And two Guatemalan children fell ill and died in December in the custody of El Paso Border Patrol sector agents, who lacked the facilities or training to handle an influx of migrant families.
“It’s the scene of his most embarrassing policy decisions when it comes to the border and immigration and asylum seekers,” said Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat who represented El Paso for six years in Congress and is considering a challenge to Trump in 2020. “But it’s also the scene of this country’s greatest successes in more closely living up to our potential and our promise. We tell ourselves that we’re a country of immigrants, and this is a city of immigrants and it defines who we are in the most powerfully positive way.”
Trump won less than 26 percent of the El Paso County vote in 2016, the lowest this city has ever delivered for a major party presidential candidate. But he has supporters in El Paso, and he’ll likely speak to a raucous crowd of 5,000 to 6,000 people Monday night at the County Coliseum. It’s the first campaign rally in El Paso by a sitting president since Bill Clinton drew a crowd of about 20,000 on the eve of his 1996 reelection. “The president did an outstanding job last night [during the State of the Union speech],” El Paso Republican Party chairman Adolpho Telles said on Wednesday. “He talked about the issues that are important to the country. But what he emphasized numerous times was unity and working together to accomplish something, to have results and go forward.”
Choosing El Paso as a site for a campaign rally aimed at promoting his border security demands could backfire on Trump, according to UTEP political science professor Todd Curry, who said the president has used El Paso “as a petri dish for his policy whims.” Curry pointed to family separation, the Tornillo tent facility, the first deaths of migrant children in CBP custody in a decade, and the force-feeding of hunger strikers at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility in El Paso as examples of issues that will resurface during Trump’s visit.
“Each of these immigration-related disasters are self-inflicted, but they have mostly ended, or national media has stopped reporting on them,” Curry said. “Trump’s trip to El Paso is the equivalent of a criminal returning to the scene of the crime. It will awaken each of them again, making them politically relevant. One needs to ask, what is Trump expecting to gain from this rally and how can it possibly outweigh all the negative coverage it will garner?”
Trump is coming to El Paso as a 2020 candidate because the visit is paid for by his reelection apparatus. It is being promoted as a campaign rally rather than a presidential address. But he is coming to the border four days before the latest deadline for congressional negotiators to reach a compromise on border security to head off another possible government shutdown. Trump has said the effort likely will fail and has repeatedly mentioned using executive powers to bypass Congress and divert money to construction of a border wall.
The No. 2 Democrat in the House, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, will visit El Paso on Saturday, two days ahead of the president. He scheduled the trip before the announcement of Trump’s campaign rally. “Despite the president’s demagoguery over immigration, there is not a national emergency or a security crisis at the border that demands a wall,” Hoyer said. “We face challenges at the border, and as negotiations over how to best secure the border continue, I feel it is important to travel there to meet directly with immigrant advocates about the humanitarian situation as well as receive a border security briefing” from federal law enforcement agencies.
Veronica Escobar, a Democrat who began representing El Paso in the House of Representatives in January, has no plans to see Trump speak in her hometown. “I’m not going to a campaign rally for Donald Trump,” she said. But she sent the president a letter with some advice on how to get the most out of his trip on Monday.
“First and foremost, we would like for him to correct the record and share with the American public that the information he gave [in the State of the Union address] was completely false. El Paso has been safe since the 1990s, has always been among the safest cities in America. A wall did not make any difference. Secondly, I believe he owes the community an apology. This misinformation is damaging and it’s hurtful. El Paso is a vibrant, wonderful community of tremendous dignity and we should be treated as such,” Escobar said.
“And I have recommendations on the places that I think he should visit, and we would be happy to show him if he would allow us,” she said. “Number one, I would like for him to see the place where Felipe was apprehended—Felipe Alonzo Gomez and his father, the 8-year-old boy who died in U.S. custody. They were apprehended on Paisano (a major El Paso street, not far from the site of Trump’s rally), where there is a wall, and it is very demonstrative of why walls do not work for asylum seekers. These asylum seekers actually stepped foot on American soil and walked up to Border Patrol agents. They were not running from them. They were not trying to evade them.”
Escobar is also urging Trump to meet with multiple stakeholders in the immigration debate, not just Border Patrol agents and other law enforcement officers. “I know he’s going to get a briefing and possibly a tour from federal law enforcement, which he should. I’ve done it. It’s important. It’s a key component of what happens on the southern border. But he needs to hear from human rights and legal advocates as well as NGOs [non-governmental organizations] in order to get a proper perspective.”
She also encouraged the president to listen to asylum seekers. “I don’t know that he’s ever gotten a personal perspective from them, and that is key to really understanding what people are going through,” Escobar said.
The El Paso congresswoman is under no illusion that Trump will take her advice. “The fact that this is a political rally tells me he is going to parachute in and try to again use fear and misinformation in order to appeal to his base. And it’s obviously deeply troubling that he would use El Paso as a prop that way.”