State of the Union: Facts show Trump wrong to say El Paso dangerous city until fence
Border Patrol Trains at Anapra Border Fence El Paso Times
AUSTIN — President Donald Trump used El Paso as an example of a safe city to bolster his argument that the United States needs to construct a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border during the State of the Union on Tuesday.
“The border city of El Paso, Texas, used to have extremely high rates of violent crime — one of the highest in the entire country, and considered one of our nation's most dangerous cities," Trump said. "Now, immediately upon its building, with a powerful barrier in place, El Paso is one of the safest cities in our country.”
This isn't the first time the White House has tried to make this argument about El Paso, and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton shared a similar comment with Trump during his visit to Texas in early January.
But is this true? Here's what we know.
Construction of a fence in El Paso
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.
Today’s fencing was largely constructed after the Secure Fence Act was adopted in 2006 under President George W. Bush.
The act kicked off years of sparring over the fence in El Paso and legal challenges to the effort that stalled construction.
An El Paso Times article from the front page of the paper on Oct. 14, 2006, the same month the law was signed, captured attitudes on the ground.
"If you believe elected officials, business leaders and community activists, the proposed border fence to limit illegal immigration is either a cure-all or a calamity," the article reads.
Construction started on the fencing in the El Paso sector in 2008 and had finished by mid-2009.
What do El Paso crime statistics show?
Trump said El Paso had a high crime rate before the fence was constructed and that the rate of crime dropped substantially after it was completed.
That was not the case.
The number of violent crimes reported in El Paso before and after construction of the fence can be calculated by combining data from the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office and the El Paso Policy Department that is available through Uniform Crime Reports from the FBI.
Looking broadly at the past 30 years, the rate of violent crime reached its peak in 1993, when more than 6,500 violent crimes were recorded.
But between 1996 and 2006, the number of violent crimes reported by law enforcement fell by more than 34 percent and less than 2,700 crimes were reported.
From 2006 to 2011 — two years before the fence was built to two years after — the number of violent crimes recorded in El Paso increased by 17 percent.
How does El Paso compare to other cities?
Leaders from El Paso pushed back against Trump’s characterization of the city as dangerous, and many argue that it has been safe long before a wall was constructed.
The FBI has said it “strongly discourages” people from using statistics from its Unified Crime Reports to rank the relative safety of cities, because “there are many factors that cause the nature and type of crime to vary from place to place.”
But it is still possible to compare the number of violent crimes reported in El Paso to other cities of similar size using these reports by generating a list of the number of violent crimes reported by law enforcement agencies from cities with populations between 500,000 and 1 million — the same category as El Paso.
In 1993, when the number of violent crimes reported in El Paso was at its highest in the past 30 years, the police and sheriff’s departments reported more than 6,500 violent crimes.
That same year, there were nearly 22,000 violent crimes reported by the Baltimore City Police Department, about 16,600 reported by police in Washington, D.C., and more than 12,000 reported by the San Francisco Police Department.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Honolulu Police Department recorded 2,500 violent crimes in 1993, followed by the Austin Police Department with about 3,000 crimes and the Tucson Police Department with more than 4,300 crimes.
What about Operation Hold the Line in 1993?
Law enforcement agencies in El Paso have used other methods to improve safety in the city, outside the construction of a fence or wall.
In 1993, Silvestre Reyes, who at that time was the new Border Patrol sector chief in El Paso, launched an effort called Operation Hold the Line aimed at cutting down on crime and illegal border crossings.
The plan involved sending all available Border Patrol agents to the border to create a “show of force” and discourage people from crossing the border without authorization. U.S. Customs and Border Patrol called the effort an “immediate success.”
Construction of a physical barrier or a fence was not part of the original pitch.
In 1995, the federal government approved a proposal from Reyes, who was later elected to represent El Paso in Congress, to build a 1.3-mile chain-link fence — but it wouldn’t be in El Paso.
The fence, which was about 10-feet fall, was constructed between Sunland Park, N.M., and Anapra, Mexico, in 1996.
Same claim made by White House in 2018
In January 2018, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted “Ask El Paso, Texas (now one of America’s safest cities) across the border from Juarez, Mexico (one of the world’s most dangerous) if a wall works."
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.
At the time, local leaders rejected the article's findings and argued that it did not mention the police's community-relations efforts and the cooperation between law enforcement agencies that contributed to the city's safety before border fencing was put in place.
Paxton made a similar claim in January during a roundtable meeting with Trump in McAllen.
"El Paso used to have one of the highest crime rates in America," Paxton said. "After that fence went up and separated Juárez, which still has an extremely high crime rate, the crime rates in El Paso now are some of the lowest in the country. So, we know it works."
A fact-check by the El Paso Times published in January found his statement to be false.
Madlin Mekelburg is a reporter with the USA Today Network Austin Bureau; she may be reached at 512-479-6606; email@example.com; @madlinbmek on Twitter.