Donald Trump uses El Paso rally to make his case for border wall funding

John C Moritz

EL PASO — President Donald Trump on Monday took a jab at El Paso Mayor Dee Margo, saying he was "full of crap" if he did not believe border fencing made the city safer.

"When that wall went up, it was a whole different ballgame," Trump said, referring to fencing along the El Paso border with Mexico. "I don’t care if a mayor is a Republican or a Democrat. They are full of crap if they say it doesn’t make a difference."

Margo, a Republican, has disputed Trump's State of the Union claim that El Paso was among the most dangerous cities in the country before border fencing was installed.

"My job as mayor is to represent El Paso factually and with integrity, correcting any misstatements negatively reflecting on our community," Margo told the El Paso Times after the president spoke. He later tweeted the same statement. "I don’t focus on political rhetoric, only facts so that my statements will never be questioned."

Trump's statements have been widely disputed by city leaders and multiple fact checks, including one by the El Paso Times.

Some form of barrier has existed between El Paso and Juárez for decades, whether it was a chain-link fence at different stretches of the border or the more substantial barrier that stands today.

According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, violent crime in El Paso fell dramatically between 1993 and 2006. From 2006 to 2011 — two years before the fence was built to two years after — the number of recorded violent crimes in El Paso increased by 17 percent, the reports say. The figures were below the average for large U.S. cities. 

Former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke held a dueling rally near the El Paso County Coliseum, where Trump spoke to 6,500 people inside and several thousand outside. 

O'Rourke's rally drew a crowd that organizers estimate to be between 6,000 and 7,000. Official estimates were not provided by police.

“With the eyes of the country upon us, all of us together are going to make our stand,” O'Rourke told the crowd of several thousand at his rally. “Here in one of the safest cities in the USA. Safe not because of walls but in spite of walls."

The Democrat, who is contemplating entering the 2020 presidential election, decried the Republican president's hard-line rhetoric on immigration that has become the centerpiece of his administration.

Trump arrived in El Paso for his first of campaign appearance of 2019 even as local leaders from both parties have stoutly contested the assertion that the region was saved from rampant cross-border violent crime by the fencing that went up more than 10 years ago.

Trump's wide-ranging address touched on topics from Texas' booming oil and gas industry to his take on the Democrats seeking to oust him in 2020.

The central focus for Trump was funding for his long-promised border wall and a flat rejection of the statistics and officials who are standing in his way.

"We need the wall," Trump said. "And it has to be built, and we have to build it fast."

The El Paso County Coliseum holds about 6,500 people, but President Donald Trump told the crowd that his campaign got special permission from the El Paso Fire Department to let 10,000 inside.

"If you want to really see something go outside," he said. "Tens of thousands of people are watching" on monitors.

An El Paso Fire Department spokesman on Monday said the president's claim about the number of people in the coliseumm was incorrect.

Enrique D Aguilar, fire public information officer, said no special permission was given by the Fire Department, and the Coliseum had about 6,500 people in it during the president's rally — at capacity, but well within its standard allowance.

Aguilar said "it might be 10,000 with the people outside" total, but the Fire Department did not track the number of people outside. The Coliseum was full at about 4 p.m., and thousands watched the president's speech on big screens outside.

El Paso, which shares a border with Juarez, Mexico, is one of the most reliably Democratic strongholds in Republican-led Texas.

Trump garnered only 26 percent of the vote in El Paso during the 2016 general election. 

“This is personal. It’s an attack on our city, our community and our families," said U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Democrat who served as El Paso County judge before her election to Congress last year. "That being said, we welcome the president. He has the opportunity to correct the record and to see the consequences of his administration’s policies."

President Donald Trump boards Air Force One as he leaves Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on Monday, Feb. 11, 2019, for a trip to El Paso. Trump will hold his first campaign rally since November's midterm elections in El Paso as he faces a defining week for his push for a border wall, his presidency and his 2020 prospects.

The president arrived at El Paso International Airport aboard Air Force One around 6:30 p.m. local time. But his supporters began lining up as many as 10 hours before that.

At the arena, Trump was welcomed by scores of supporters, some of whom traveled from neighboring New Mexico and Arizona to cheer his calls for greater security on the nation's southern border.

Both of Texas' Republican U.S. senators, John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, were called to warm up the crowd inside the arena ahead the president's arrival. When Cruz exclaimed, "It is time to build the wall,” the crowd erupted and echoed with the signature chant, "Build the wall! Build the wall."

Nearly all wore Trump regalia, from "Make America Great Again" ball caps to "Trump 2020 shirts and buttons.

Democratic leaders, led by former Congressman Beto O'Rourke, participated in what they call a "March for Truth" to combat Trump's statements about the border city.

Buttons backing a presidential run by Beto O'Rourke are on sale Monday before his rally.

El Paso  native Yolanda Moreno was among the first to assemble outside the city's Bowie High School not far from the existing fencing at the border. 

“I initially had tickets to the Trump rally, then my son brought this (rally) to my attention,” said Moreno, who purchased a "Beto for President" flag for the occasion. The reason she wanted to attend the Trump event, she said, was “to hear what he had to say. Hear his lies.”

But the president's supporters said they were drawn to his message and to the policies he's pursued during his two years in the White House.

“Since the president announced his campaign, we liked what he offered the veterans, the tax proposal, and so far he has held to his promises,” said Ismael Lozado, an El Paso resident who arrived at the coliseum around 1:30 p.m.  “I do believe we need a wall as a country. Any country needs to defend its borders.”

At the Trump rally, the president's son and namesake took a shot at the O'Rourke-led event.

“I would be more impressed if he had the guts to do his rally on the Juarez side of the wall," said Donald Trump Jr.

Although Trump campaigned for the wall, both as a candidate on the 2016 trail and as president, no funding for his vision for the physical barrier has been approved by Congress, even during the first two years of his administration when Republicans controlled by the House and Senate.

The fencing in El Paso, and down river to Brownsville and the Lower Rio Grande Valley, is part of the initiative launched under the-President George W. Bush a dozen years ago.

Trump's insistence on wall funding was central to the record-setting partial shutdown of the federal government. But when a temporary agreement to reopen the government was reached, wall funding was not included.

And as administration and congressional leaders seek to reach a long-term deal by Feb. 15, Democratic leaders have said that wall funding will not be part of any border security package.

Related coverage of Trump's visit

More: Ahead of Trump El Paso rally, migrants continue arriving in Juárez

More: El Paso mayor answers questions on Trump visit

Staff writers Aaron Martinez, Daniel Borunda, Vic Kolenc, Maria Cortez, Nick Oza, Jackie Devine, Rafael Carranza, Blake Gumbrecht, Sara Sanchez, Diana Soular and David Davis contributed to this report.

This article originally appeared on El Paso Times: Donald Trump uses El Paso rally to make his case for border wall funding