Dueling rallies – for and against Trump – roil through El Paso during president's visit
Officials in El Paso, Texas, are disputing President Donald Trump's claim that a "powerful barrier" alone has cut crime rates in the city. Mayor Dee Margo says the wall is just one tool keeping crime low. (Feb 11) AP
EL PASO, Texas – Mariachis versus MAGA hats. Pro-wall versus pro-immigrants. President versus potential presidential hopeful.
This Texas border city of 684,000 residents was rocked Monday by dueling political rallies as a campaign event by President Donald Trump was met with protests led by former Democratic congressman and El Paso native Beto O'Rourke, a potential contender against Trump in next year's presidential election.
Across the city, pro-Trump backers voiced their support for the president, especially in his steadfast effort to erect a border wall along the southwest border with Mexico. A campaign rally at the El Paso County Coliseum drew several thousand supporters.
Trump took a jab at his El Paso rival, calling O'Rourke "a young man who has very little going for himself except he has a great first name." His speech was interrupted repeatedly by anti-Trump protesters in the crowd.
"Where do these people come from?" Trump said, widening his arms.
A mile away, several thousand protesters shouldered a windy, cold evening to hold a counter-rally. They held signs that read, "Immigrants Make America Great" and "BETO 2020," while mariachi music rang out.
O'Rourke delivered a speech in both English and Spanish, denouncing Trump's policies and harsh rhetoric on illegal immigration.
"We, together, are making a stand for the truth against lies and hate and intolerance," he told the cheering crowd. "We are going to show the country who we are.”
The Trump rally, held in strongly Democratic El Paso, came a week after the president's State of the Union address, in which he angered many locals by saying El Paso was “once considered one of our nation's most dangerous cities" until a security fence was erected. Trump wants $5.7 billion to build a border wall, a sticking point in a government shutdown that dragged for 35 days.
Monday's rally, Trump's first political event of 2019, is probably a harbinger of more to come to garner support for the wall and his re-election campaign.
Supporters of Trump – and his calls for a wall – began lining up outside the El Paso County Coliseum as early as 6 a.m., carrying lawn chairs and sack lunches. Vendors sold Trump-themed hats, T-shirts and banners from folding tables.
Randy Ashbaugh traveled 120 miles from Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, along with his grandson Maddox, 13, to see the president.
Granddad and grandson, both wearing Trump shirts and jackets, said they wanted to voice their support for securing the border.
"Immigration: Build that wall," Randy Ashbaugh said. "It is very important. ... We need to build the wall to stop drugs and illegal immigration."
Christie Buckley, 48, of Fort Hood, Texas, drove nine hours to attend the rally. She pulled into the coliseum at 5:30 a.m. and was one of the first in line.
"I think he’s one of the greatest things to happen to this county," Buckley said of Trump. "I’m amazed by him. I appreciate that he tells the truth."
Sherry Lewis, a school teacher from El Paso, said she took the day off to attend the president's rally, calling it a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
"I believe in what he’s doing for the country," she said. "He’s keeping his promises.”
The sentiment was dramatically different a mile down the road.
Lyda Ness-Garcia, one of the organizers of the counter-rally, said she and others are dismayed that El Paso has been the site for controversial federal immigration practices. The Trump administration launched a pilot program here for family separations before expanding the program, she said. The policy drew fierce criticism and ultimately was dropped, though it remains unclear how many children were separated from the families and are still being separated.
The Tornillo facility, a tent city housing migrant youth that closed under withering criticism, was operated nearby.
"El Paso, unfortunately, has been the testing grounds for some of the most inhumane policies of this administration," Ness-Garcia said. "Yes, there's a lot of anger, but there's also a lot of positivity. That's what we want to focus on: being peaceful and passionate."
This was Trump's second visit to a border city in as many months. Last month, he visited McAllen, Texas, and met with Customs and Border Protection officials. That visit also sparked street demonstrations in support and against the president.
At Monday's counter-rally, people waved "Beto for President" flags and "Not My President" T-shirts. An all-female mariachi band blared classic songs for the crowd and dedicated a special tune to the president: "Viva Mexico."
Eddie Rojas, 24, said he doesn't usually attend political rallies, but Trump's comments on El Paso and his insistence on a wall motivated him to attend. Monday, he held a poster board that read, "El Paso – Safest City Since 1850 ... No more lies 45."
"I work really hard for my money," he said. "I don't want to see it spent on a wall."
Silvestre Reyes, a former Border Patrol sector chief here and ex-congressman representing El Paso, said he was taken aback by the inaccuracy of Trump's comments on El Paso. Illegal crossings into El Paso dropped from about 10,000 a day to less than 200 after he launched Operation Hold the Line more than a decade before the security fence went up.
He said he found Trump's comments – and his decision to hold a rally here – distasteful.
"It’s very frustrating to have someone at that level who could misrepresent what actually goes on," Reyes said.
Follow Jervis on Twitter: @MrRJervis.
Contributing: Blake Gumprecht, Las Cruces Sun-News; Rafael Carranza, Arizona Republic; and Aaron Martinez, El Paso Times.