El Paso leaders say city is safe because of people, law enforcement not border fence
BNHR and Poor People's Campaign Hold Rally at Border
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders drew backlash Tuesday after suggesting in a tweet that El Paso was one of America's safest cities because of a federally-funded border fence.
El Paso leaders have long argued that the city is erroneously characterized as unsafe by state and federal officials who lack an understanding about the region.
On Monday, Sanders' social media post thrust El Paso into the national spotlight for its reputation as a safe city, but attributed that safety to the border fencing that creates a physical barrier between the U.S. and Mexico.
"Ask El Paso, Texas (now one of America's safest cities) across the border from Juárez, Mexico (one of the world's most dangerous) if a wall works,” Sanders wrote on Twitter Monday.
She linked to an opinion piece published in the New York Post that was titled “This town is proof that Trump’s wall can work.” The piece, written by a conservative political commentator based in Washington, D.C., argued that El Paso’s border fence is the reason for the city's low crime rate and decreased illegal border crossings.
The piece does not mention the police-community relations and cooperation among law enforcement agencies that many El Paso leaders say contributed to the city's safety long before the border fencing.
“El Paso has long been one of the country’s safest cities. That safety record long predates the construction of the fence along the Rio Grande," said Jon Barela, chief executive officer of the Borderplex Alliance, a regional economic development group for El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico.
“I do find it encouraging on one end, perhaps ironic, that the administration now recognizes El Paso as one of the safest cities in the country after the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, described our city as ‘ground zero’ in the fight against drug trafficking and implied we were an unsafe city," Barela said.
"I’m happy the administration finally sees the truth about our safety record," Barela said. "We are a great place to do business, to visit and to live.”
The column, first published by the New York Post and now with excerpts on the White House website, points to Homeland Security data about illegal border crossings in the region during the time before and after the fence was constructed.
"Before 2010, federal data show the border city was mired in violent crime and drug smuggling, thanks in large part to illicit activities spilling over from the Mexican side,” wrote Paul Sperry, author of the post. "Once the fence went up, however, things changed almost overnight.”
El Paso had dropping crime numbers well before the fence was built, officials said and data supports.
Former El Paso Police Chief Russ Leach told the El Paso Times in 1997 that people are quick to credit law enforcement as crime rates ebb and flow, but the residents of El Paso are actually behind the city's safety.
"It's not the police, and it's not the conditions in the community: It's the people,” he said at the time.
U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-El Paso, reiterated that sentiment on Tuesday in an interview with the El Paso Times.
"It has never been federal policy that has made us safe," O'Rourke said. "It has been El Paso, and El Pasoans specifically who have made us safe."
State Rep. Lina Ortega, D-El Paso, said the argument in the opinion piece is a "total fabrication."
“I was born in El Paso and I’ve lived here all my life, except when I left for my schooling, and this article appears to imply that all of a sudden after this wall was built that El Paso became a safe city, and that is incorrect,” she said. “We’ve always been a safe city and I don’t think that a wall makes a difference."
State Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, was more blunt. He said the author of the piece was “cherry picking stats to support lies” about the region.
“The New York Post allowed a columnist to tell lies about (El Paso),” he wrote on Facebook. “Administration press secretary spreads the lie. In other news, the sun rose in the east today."
El Paso officials have pointed to community policing and efforts to improve trust between law enforcement and residents as factors in the city’s low crime numbers.
Police in El Paso have also worked to address gang activity, establishing a Gang Unit in the 1990s to combat a high number of deaths through gang violence and drive-by shootings.
O'Rourke also credits law enforcement for the city's safety, and the relationships they've built with members of the community.
"You have a city of immigrants and law enforcement that understands that when they have a positive relationship with all aspects of the community, including the immigrant community, members of those communities are more likely to come forward to report crimes, serve as witnesses, testify at trials and to help with the job that law enforcement has," he said. "There's a mutual relationship of trust and respect, characterized by treating one another with dignity."
Sperry, author of the opinion piece, wrote that El Paso has topped rankings for the safest city since the fence was constructed and “local press accounts” include comments from residents who think the fence cuts crime rates.
“All told, a legion of empirical evidence supports the idea a southern border wall could, in fact, work,” he wrote.
State Rep. Cesar Blanco, D-El Paso, said Sperry’s characterization of El Paso in the piece ignores the impact of law enforcement’s work in the community and the relationship between the United States and Mexico.
“It totally disregards the efforts of local, state and federal law enforcement and the work they do day in and day out to protect our communities,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s people that keep communities safe, not physical barriers.”
Federal law enforcement officers have been present in El Paso for more than 100 years — the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website credits the Mounted Guards who patrolled El Paso in the early 1900s as the original border patrol.
In 1993, U.S. Border Patrol launched "Operation Hold the Line” in El Paso, sending agents and various technology to the city to deter people from crossing the border.
The operation with agents posted along the Rio Grande served as a model for tough security efforts in other parts of the border. The increased enforcement is credited with decreasing cross-border crime.
“The drastic reduction in apprehensions prompted the Border Patrol to undertake a full-scale effort in San Diego, California, which accounted for more than half of illegal entries,” reads a post on the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website.
"El Paso has consistently ranked among the safest cities in the country – it is positive for our community to receive national recognition for this ranking," Mayor Dee Margo said in a statement that did not specifically address Sanders' tweet or Sperry's opinion piece on the border fencing. "I commend the work on a daily basis by our law enforcement agencies, and first responders, to keep El Pasoans safe."
Many Texas lawmakers, Republicans included, have maintained that a coast-to-coast physical wall like the one President Donald Trump has described is unnecessary.
Trump’s call to build a wall along the border between the United States and Mexico fueled much of his campaign and he has continued to champion it while in office — often at the expense of other legislation.
The Trump administration has tied spending for the wall to efforts to save Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, an Obama-era immigration program that protects people who entered the country illegally as children from deportation.
Trump opted to end DACA in September, but has been in negotiations with lawmakers in Washington who are seeking to protect the program.
U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, a Republican who represents part of East El Paso, has been a vocal opponent of a physical wall along the entire border. His proposal to provide a legislative fix for DACA includes a call for the Homeland Security Department to analyze the border to determine where a physical wall might be effective.
Hurd's office did not respond to requests for comments on the New York Post opinion piece.
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said officials at the federal level understand that constructing a literal wall along the entire border with Mexico is unrealistic, but an "integrated system" would include physical barriers. His office did not respond to a request for comment specifically on the article.
"It’s not accurate to say all we need is a physical barrier," Cornyn said at a press event on Friday. "We need much more than that, and we need the flexibility to give the professionals the tools they need to do the job.”
Blanco said there is a “fluid border" between El Paso and Juárez, as many people in the area have family in both countries.
“We are a binational community in El Paso and Juárez,” he said. “We are interconnected, regardless of the situation in Mexico. We are interconnected by trade, interconnected by business and, I think most importantly, interconnected by culture.”
O'Rourke agreed. He said El Paso's relationship with Mexico also explains its reputation as a safe city.
"We're physically connected to Ciudad Juárez — the street grids of the two communities run into each other," he said. "They're two halves of one system economically, genetically, familialy, historically and culturally."
Blanco said he would be open to meeting with the administration to talk about border security.
“We’d like to extend an invitation,” Blanco said, pointing to Sanders and the author of the article. “To at least visit El Paso before they make those kinds of comments."
Madlin Mekelburg is a reporter with the USA Today Network Austin Bureau; she may be reached at 512-479-6606; firstname.lastname@example.org; @madlinbmek on Twitter.
Daniel Borunda may be reached at 546-6102; email@example.com; @BorundaDaniel on Twitter.