On Monday night, President Donald Trump held his first re-election campaign rally in El Paso, Texas, while former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke spoke at a counter rally down the street. The stage for political theatrics had been set since last week, when President Trump made false statements about El Paso’s safety during the State of the Union that incited a quick response from the El Paso community and members of Congress.
“His lies won’t go unchallenged,” Congresswoman Veronica Escobar said in a press conference on Monday in El Paso.
The city, my longtime home, was eager to challenge the false statements and prove it’s not the bullet-ridden place the president and cartel-themed movies and television might have us believe.
“Everyone has the impression that the border is a war zone, and that’s been the impression for years and years,” El Paso County Commissioner Vincent Perez told ELLE.com. “At least now everybody is saying the same thing that El Paso is a safe place and I hope that message resonates. It’s been a safe place for a long time and I certainly hope that message gets out there.”
El Paso has traditionally existed in its own bubble, the overlooked little sister to more glamorous Texan cities like Dallas or Austin. But because of heightened focus on border security, El Paso has become an emblem of some of the most controversial issues at stake in the 2020 presidential election.
At the rally, hosted feet away from the border, hundreds of attendees lined up around the El Paso County Coliseum to await President Trump. Vendors from Arkansas and South Carolina said they were grateful for the opportunity to sell MAGA merchandise, which they considered to be a job created by President Trump. A group of students from the University of Texas at El Paso said they were thrilled to see the president so close.
“I really like his policies economically, and he’s really made us grow. I’m really happy to have him as a president,” said Catherine Katschke, a University of Texas at El Paso student.
It’s hard to find people in El Paso who are wholly anti-immigration, and that includes the students. Luis Hinojos, a student at the UTEP and president of the El Paso Young Republicans, immigrated legally with his family from Juarez when he was a child. Hinojos, like other Republican immigrants I spoke with, believe that other immigrants ought and should follow their example of legally entering the United States.
“The root cause of mass migration into the U.S. is lack of opportunities and violence in the Northern Triangle that makes up El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras,” said Congressman Will Hurd of Texas. Hurd represents 820 of the 2,000 miles of border along the U.S. and Mexico, and said technology and manpower are most needed when it comes to border security. “If we were working with governments in those countries, then we [could] address the problem before it gets to our border at a fraction of the cost.”
The city of El Paso has found itself in the uncomfortable position of economically benefiting from a number of President Trump’s policies on immigration. El Paso has a contract with the U.S. Marshals that incurred $22 million in revenue for the city to house their federal inmates, the majority of whom face criminal immigration-related charges like not having papers. El Paso makes more money off the incarceration of migrants than it does from tolls obtained during legal entry.
Back at the rally, Texas Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz took the stage in support of their party, the president, and their state while emphasizing the need for a border wall. When Donald Trump, Jr. took the stage, the climate of the venue changed almost instantly. He launched into a strange speech about liking Texas and playing with machine guns, before taking shots at O’Rourke’s competing rally. Don Jr. called “the left a caricature of itself” then thanked O’Rourke and the Democratic party for “making it known how many deplorables there are out there.” Then he began to insult the media.
The crowd went wild.
A few minutes later, President Trump took the stage and the crowd continued to swell with excitement.
Not long after, a man in a tan shirt standing near the press pen began to taunt me by swatting at my phone and camera, obstructing journalists’ photos and insulting me while I took notes. I tried to maneuver around him, and he told me I was part of the “evil media” and “build that wall!”
About midway through President Trump’s speech, a group of activists released a banner and started chanting in support of the El Paso 9, a group of immigration detainees who have been subjected to forced feedings while on hunger strike. The group was rushed by Secret Service out of the venue.
“[The rally attendees] were very, very, aggressive,” said Destiny Garcia who was one of the protestors removed. “We knew that was a risk, and I wasn’t scared.”
After I left the rally, [later,] President Trump made incendiary statements about the media to his crowd, and then the tan-shirted man who had swatted at my phone launched himself into the press pen and knocked over cameras, equipment, and disrupted the work of the media. The president gave an enthusiastic thumbs up in approval.
Many expected O’Rourke to announce a presidential run of his own last night that would have made El Paso the cornerstone of his 2020 election campaign. Instead, he opted to stand firmly alongside the city rather than perpetuate political theatrics. The message was one of neither party nor politics, but rather a request for truth and community strength. That’s the El Paso I know.