EL PASO, Texas — People walking over the Paso del Norte Bridge linking this West Texas border city to Mexico can watch President Donald Trump’s border wall getting bigger in real time.
Workers in fluorescent smocks can be seen digging trenches, pouring concrete and erecting rust-colored slabs of 18-foot-high metal to replace layers of barbed wire-topped fencing along the mud-colored Rio Grande, which is usually little more than a trickle.
Most of the more than 70,000 people who legally cross four city bridges daily — to shop, go to school and work — pay the construction in the heart of downtown no mind. But on a recent weekday, one man stopped and pointed, saying simply “Trump.”
In his State of the Union address, the president said a “powerful barrier” had cut crime rates in El Paso. He’s holding a rally here today to show why he’s demanding more than 100 miles of new walls, costing $5.7 billion, along the 1,900-mile border, despite opposition from Democrats and some Republicans in Congress.
But many in this city of dusty desert winds and blistering salsa, bristle at the prospect of their home becoming a border wall poster child.
Trump said barriers turned El Paso from one of the nation’s most dangerous cities to one of its safest, but that’s not true. El Paso, population around 800,000, had a murder rate less than half the national average in 2005, a year before the most recent expansion of its border fence. That’s despite being just across the border from drug violence-plagued Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
Many residents say El Paso embodies a cross-border spirit that transcends walls rather than proving more are needed.
“The richest of the rich, the poorest of the poor, we all have different reasons for wanting to cross, and people cross every day,” said El Paso City Council member Peter Svarzbein.
El Paso lays bare the mixed feelings the border inspires. Even native Beto O’Rourke, a former Democratic congressman now mulling a presidential run, says barriers are inevitable but that Trump’s calls for an expanded wall are the “cynical rhetoric of war, of invasions, of fear.”
O’Rourke will help lead an evening march tonight opposing the wall with dozens of local civic, human rights and Hispanic groups at the same time Trump is holding his rally. Organizers expect thousands to turn out.
“While some try to stoke fear and paranoia, to spread lies and a false narrative about the U.S.-Mexico border and to demand a 2,000-mile wall along it at a time of record safety and security, El Paso will come together for a march and celebration that highlights the truth,” O’Rourke said in a statement.
For centuries, virtually nothing but an often easily wadable Rio Grande stood between the city and Juarez. But worsening economic problems in Mexico increased the flow of immigrants into the United States in the 1970s, prompting Congress to approved chain-link fencing here and in San Diego. Public reaction to the security measures initially was positive in some quarters because it helped reduce vagrancy and petty crime. But many residents now complain that Trump’s demands have gone too far, making their home sound like a war zone and offending both them and people from Mexico.