Trump and Beto O’Rourke hold dueling rallies on immigration in El Paso
EL PASO, Texas — Undaunted by his past failures, President Trump on Monday again headed south to the border with Mexico to make his case to spend billions of federal dollars for a wall there, hoping to put Democrats in Washington on the defensive as another partial government shutdown looms.
Yet awaiting him in El Paso were residents fuming over the president’s false characterization of their city as a former hotbed of violence during his State of the Union address last week. That sparked plans for protest marches and rallies that gave the area’s former congressman, Democrat Beto O’Rourke, a prime-time national platform as he considers a presidential campaign to challenge Trump.
The showdown came as the three-week government funding measure, agreed to last month to end a record-setting 35-day shutdown, is scheduled to lapse at midnight Friday.
Late Monday, a House-Senate committee bargaining over border security funding and trying to avert another shutdown reached an “agreement in principle,” according to Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Talks had stalled on the weekend, Republicans said, over Democrats’ demands to limit the detention of undocumented immigrants.
Should Congress pass a compromise, the onus would be on the president to accept it, or risk taking blame again for a partial federal shutdown. Heading to El Paso, Trump planned to pressure Democrats from the rally stage and, before arriving, sought to pre-emptively shift blame should talks ultimately fail. After the recent shutdown, polls showed the public put the blame squarely on him.
With both his rally and the protest featuring O’Rourke likely to receive national television coverage, the split-screen moment promised something of an audition of a hypothetical 2020 matchup, effectively creating a live debate between the president and a charismatic potential challenger on the issue that most animated Trump’s followers in 2016 and might well again in his re-election bid. Though O’Rourke lost a Senate race in November, his campaign excited national attention among Democrats.
Before leaving the White House, the president signaled that he too saw the dueling rallies as an early competition, with his familiar emphasis on crowd sizes.
“We have a line that’s very long already,” Trump told reporters, referring to people waiting to enter his venue. He added, “I understand our competitor’s got a line too, but it’s a tiny little line.”
Eager to frame the contrast, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway dismissed O’Rourke as a “loser” who is looking for “free air time” by counterprogramming the president’s rally. “If he wants to remind everybody that he’s against securing the border, a man who represented El Paso, then have at it,” she said during an interview on “Fox & Friends.”
With protest organizers anticipating a turnout of between 6,000 to 9,000 people, O’Rourke called the march “a positive response to the president’s lies about our community.” He said the event had little to do with him: “The reason this is happening is because the community came together.”
In a tweet on Monday, Trump falsely portrayed Democrats as resisting any compromise on border security funding: “The Democrats do not want us to detain, or send back, criminal aliens! This is a brand new demand. Crazy!”
Trump’s drumbeat on immigration has yet to pay political dividends beyond his own supporters, and it has further galvanized his opponents. His fear-mongering during campaign rallies last fall over caravans of immigrants failed to prevent a Democratic wave that cost Republicans a net 40 seats and their majority in the House.
Over the five-week-long shutdown, the longest in the country’s history, the president’s depictions of violent crimes along the border, much of it discredited, failed to persuade Democrats to agree to the $5.7 billion he wanted for a 234-mile portion of his proposed border wall.
And during his State of the Union address, his incorrect portrayal of El Paso — he said it had “extremely high rates of violent crime” and was “one of our nation’s most dangerous cities” until the government built a “powerful barrier” there — touched a nerve among civic leaders and citizens.
The El Paso County Commissioners Court on Monday approved a resolution assailing the president and his administration for misinformation and lies about a “crisis situation” on the U.S.-Mexico border, and noting that the federal government said “no crisis exists” and that “fiscal year 2017 was the lowest year of illegal cross-border migration on record.”
Lyda Ness Garcia, a lawyer and founder of the Women’s March of El Paso, said organizers of Monday night’s march from a high school at the border to the city coliseum, where the president was to appear, were motivated to counteract Trump’s “lies” about their city.
“There was a deep sense of anger in our community, from the left and the right. It’s the demonization of our border. It’s the misrepresentation that the wall made us safe when we were safe long before,” she said.
Referring to the Mexican city just over the border, Garcia added: “We’re connected to Juarez. People forget. We’re not separate. We’re one culture.”
In truth, violent crime dropped in El Paso after a peak in 1993. It was actually at historic lows before Congress authorized a fence along the Rio Grande in 2006. Crime began to rise again over the next four years, after the fencing went up.
The city’s Republican mayor, Dee Margo, admonished Trump after the State of the Union speech, saying during an appearance on CNN that the president’s depiction of El Paso is “not factually correct.”
Fernando Garcia, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights, said organizers intended the march as a community celebration rather than an anti-Trump or pro-O’Rourke political event.
“You will see people proudly celebrating what we are — how El Paso has been a city that has welcomed everybody, including immigrants,” said Garcia, who noted that residents had seen the fallout from the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policies firsthand, both in family separations and in asylum-seekers being turned away from border bridges and required to remain in Mexico while they await hearings.
In December, two Guatemalan migrant children died in Border Patrol custody in the El Paso area after seeking asylum.
“Trump has created policies and strategies that have created deep wounds in our region,” Garcia said. “We are not a violent city. We are not criminals. We are part of America and we deserve respect from this president. We need to denounce his distortion of the border and his lies about what immigrants are about.”
O’Rourke denounced Trump’s rhetoric about illegal immigrants as racist in a written post last week. Although the event is bringing together roughly 50 local groups, O’Rourke’s political star power generated significant media coverage.
“If you’re Beto, there couldn’t be a better, more visual contrast,” said Jen Psaki, a former communications director to President Barack Obama. “By leading a march, he gets back to his grass-roots origins and it allows him to stand toe to toe with the president of the United States and to echo a message that even local Republicans agree with. It gives him a platform and a megaphone at a beneficial time.”
Not willing to cede the moment completely to O’Rourke, Julian Castro — a former mayor of San Antonio, an Obama Cabinet member and already a declared presidential candidate — went Monday to the border checkpoint where his grandmother entered the United States as a young girl. He filmed a video denouncing the president, and calling the visit to El Paso an effort “to create a circus of fear and paranoia” and “to tell lies about the border and about immigration.”
Speaking directly into the camera, Castro added, “Don’t take the bait.”