U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions visited El Paso last week as part of his tour of cities along the U.S.-Mexico border. Upon arrival, the former senator from Alabama promptly put his foot in his mouth. According to the El Paso Times, when Sessions addressed the media in El Paso he essentially likened the city to a war zone, using terms like “ground zero,” “beachhead,” and “the front lines.”
“As I learned first-hand last week in Nogales, it is here, on this sliver of land where we establish a beachhead against the cartels, against the transnational street gangs like MS-13, and the human traffickers,” Sessions told reporters after he and Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly met with federal agents and prosecutors in El Paso, according to the Times. “This is the ground. This is ground zero—this is the front lines, and this is where we are making our stand.”
In reality, El Paso is literally one of the safest cities in the country.
It topped Congressional Quarterly‘s list of the safest cities in America for four straight years from 2010 to 2014. Although those rankings are based on FBI statistics that shouldn’t necessarily be used to compare relative safety, they do show that crime is generally very low in El Paso. Oddly enough, Sessions also acknowledged El Paso’s low crime rates, saying that “El Paso has done a really good job of maintaining a lower violent crime rate than a lot of cities in the country and certainly a lot better than across the border.”
Sessions’s rhetoric seems to stem from President Donald Trump, who during his campaign infamously falsely said that most Mexican immigrants who come across the border are “rapists” and criminals. Multiple studies have shown that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than people born in the United States. Sessions’s mischaracterization of El Paso feeds into the Trump administration’s priorities to deport millions of immigrants, bolster immigration enforcement agencies along the border, and build a costly wall.
The recent comments infuriated community leaders in El Paso, who didn’t take kindly to Sessions dubbing their city “ground zero” for Trump’s border war. “This language and rhetoric makes us less safe and makes it harder for a city like El Paso to attract talent and investments to continue to be successful,” El Paso Congressman Beto O’Rourke said, according to the Times. “The attorney general did not do us any favors today.” Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the federal building where Sessions spoke on Thursday, chanting, “Get out, Sessions!” and holding signs, according to the Times.
County Judge Veronica Escobar didn’t mince words, calling Session’s statements “offensive,” and adding that “it’s absolutely clear that the truth and the facts about the richness and significance of border communities, and the beauty of our immigrant families, makes absolutely no difference to them,” according to the Times. “By using language that connotes a war almost, by calling it a beachhead, by saying this is ground zero, this language causes incredible harm to our community. That language and that attitude and that rhetoric is un-American.”
Jon Barela, the head of the Borderplex Alliance, a regional economic development group for El Paso, Juárez, and New Mexico, shared those sentiments. “I am also disappointed by their coming to our region for a photo op and a press conference which carries false information,” Barela told the Times. “I would hope that next time they are visiting our region they have an opportunity to meet with business people and visit with companies that create hundreds of thousands of jobs in a vibrant and integrated economy on both sides of the border. If they were serious about understanding the region, they would know border trade and our economic relationship with Mexico is integral to job creation in the United States.”
Likewise, Richard Dayoub, president and CEO of the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce, wasn’t too thrilled with Sessions’s visit. “We feel that his statements are regrettable and uninformed, and only does further damage to the entire southern border region,” Dayoub told the Times. “We are not ground zero.”
Sessions met privately with El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser during the visit, and, from Leeser’s perspective at least, that meeting seemed to have gone pretty well. Leeser told El Paso ABC affiliate KVIA that he talked to Sessions about the importance for border cities like El Paso of maintaining a strong relationship with sister cities in Mexico. “I want people to understand how we live and I want them to understand the people of El Paso,” Leeser told KVIA. “That’s one of the things I wanted them to understand: we consider Juarez to be our neighbor and our friend. Washington makes decisions that impact El Paso and border cities and I wanted to make sure they understand El Paso. (Sessions) was willing to listen. He said the trip was very important to him and eye-opening.”