WASHINGTON — As he’s tried to sell the need for his border wall to the American public over the past month, President Donald Trump has painted a dark picture of life on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Visiting McAllen, Texas, on the state’s southern tip, on Jan. 10, Trump talked about the “tremendous flood of illegal immigration, drug trafficking, human trafficking” and about “the criminal gangs coming in.”
Then, in his State of the Union address last Tuesday, he called El Paso, Texas, “one of our nation’s most dangerous cities” — that is, he said, before it erected a new border fencing.
Trump is slated to hold a rally for his wall in El Paso on Monday night.
But politicians and business leaders from these cities say that Trump’s portrayal is unfair, misleading and exaggerated — hardly reflecting what it’s like living on the United States side of the border.
“While there are problem areas along the U.S.-Mexico border, the problem he has described is grossly distorted from reality,” said Michael Blum, a local business and community leader in McAllen.
There’s no dismissing that border cities like McAllen and El Paso have been thoroughfares for illegal immigration and illicit drugs due to their proximity to Mexico.
And in recent years, drug violence across the border in Mexico has worsened, while families and children fleeing Central America have reached these cities, especially McAllen.
Those facts, however, tell only part of what it’s like to live on the border, where trade and commerce flourish between the United States and Mexico, where culture between the two countries is interconnected, and where there’s less violent crime than in other metropolitan areas.
In El Paso — a city with a population of about 700,000 — violent crime has been cut in half since the 1990s, and the most up-to-date crime rate there was fewer than 400 incidents per 100,000 people.
That’s less than New York City’s rate of nearly 600 violent crimes per 100,000 residents and Washington’s rate of 1,200 violent crimes per 100,000 people.
The statistics also contradict Trump’s claim about El Paso’s border fencing: They show that violent crime was already on the downswing before the fencing was completed in 2009, and then it slightly increased after it was finished.
“El Paso was NEVER one of the MOST dangerous cities in the US,” El Paso Mayor Dee Margo, a Republican, tweeted after Trump’s State of the Union. “We‘ve had a fence for 10 years and it has impacted illegal immigration and curbed criminal activity. It is NOT the sole deterrent.”
When Acting U.S. Attorney General Matthew Whitaker was asked at a congressional hearing Friday about the validity of those crime statistics in El Paso, he replied: “I do not have any reason to disagree with the FBI's data."
The per-capita rate of violent crime in McAllen — a city of about 150,000 residents — was 131 crimes per 100,000 people in 2014, lower than El Paso’s.
The number of undocumented immigrants apprehended at the border — probably the best way to measure the traffic of illegal immigration — also has declined in both cities.
Apprehensions in El Paso have plummeted from nearly 120,000 in 2000 to 25,000 in 2017, according to U.S. Border Patrol statistics.
And while apprehensions spiked in McAllen in 2014, due in large part to unaccompanied minors from Central America, they’ve been on the decline since then.
Ahead of the president’s visit to El Paso on Monday, Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, wrote Trump a letter asking him to apologize for his portrayal of the city in his State of the Union address.
Escobar’s predecessor — former El Paso Rep. (and potential 2020 Democratic presidential candidate) Beto O’Rourke — plans to participate in a counter-programming event Monday night celebrating the city’s culture and diversity.
“I urge you to treat this visit as your opportunity not only to correct the record and ensure that the misinformation you stated on the national stage is retracted,” Escobar told Trump, “but also an opportunity to apologize to El Pasoans for the disparagement of our community.”