In a city separated from Mexico by a river that’s a mere 50 yards wide, dueling rallies hosted by President Donald Trump and former congressman Beto O’Rourke demonstrated just how far apart the debate over immigration has become.
Trump, standing beneath twin crimson banners emblazoned “FINISH THE WALL,” framed the creation of his long-promised border wall as a humanitarian emergency—and called his opponents’ positions “dangerous and immoral.”
“Both parties should come together to finally create a safe and lawful system of immigration,” Trump said. “We need Democrat votes to do it.”
Minutes after reports emerged that a bipartisan agreement had been reached to avert a looming federal shutdown without his sky-high funding for a border wall, Trump told the crowd in El Paso that walls work to stop drugs, crime, and traffickers—and that the city of El Paso itself stands as proof.
“Right across the border, it’s one of the most dangerous cities in the world… the people in Juárez are great. Thanks to a powerful border wall in El Paso, Texas, it’s one of America’s safest cities now,” Trump told supporters in the El Paso County Coliseum. “Walls save lives.”
Over the course of a rally that was frequently punctuated by protests, Trump appeared to relish being in combat mode, ripping Democrats for late-term abortion, the “Green New Deal,” President Bill Clinton’s 1993 health care plan, and the Russia investigation. The tentative deal keeping the government open, however, went practically unmentioned by the president.
“They say that progress is being made—we’re building the wall anyway,” Trump said, noting briefly that he had been informed that “significant” progress has been made on a funding deal. “I don’t even wanna hear about it. I don’t know what they mean, ‘progress is being made.’”
The proposed deal, struck on Monday evening, would reportedly provide $1.375 billion for 55 miles of additional bollard fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border, less than the $1.6 billion allocated for border barriers in the deal Trump passed on late last year, and far less than the $5.7 billion he had demanded during the course of the shutdown that resulted after he rejected that earlier offer.
Trump, never one for numbers, delivered the campaign-style stump speech as if negotiations over his proposed border wall were simultaneously ongoing and had been concluded victoriously.
“I don’t know if you’ve heard, today we started a big beautiful wall right on the Rio Grande,” Trump said at the speech’s outset. “Right smack on the Rio Grande.”
It was unclear what wall the president was referring to.
At another point, Trump responded to chants of “Build That Wall!” by insisting that the wording needed to be updated.
“You really mean ‘Finish That Wall,’ because we’ve finished a lot of it,” Trump said.
Trump told the crowd that the El Paso Fire Department had given him special permission to have a 10,000-person crowd at a facility that seats 6,500. The El Paso Times reported late Monday that a fire department official said that wasn’t true—the Coliseum had 6,500 people in it for the Trump event.
The city of El Paso, the seat of a region that is home to one of the largest bilingual and binational workforces in the world, was true to its dual reputation on Monday night, as a counter-rally held less than half a mile away attempted to prove that the city’s ties with the Mexican people are inextricable—and that Trump’s proposed border wall could never change that. In an impassioned 20-minute speech, Beto O’Rourke, the Texas Democrat who nearly defeated Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) in the race for Senate last year, vociferously defended his city from the president’s attacks.
El Paso is safe “not because of walls, but in spite of walls. Secure because we treat one another with dignity and respect,” O’Rourke said, gesticulating wildly with his arms. “That is the way that we make our communities and our country safe.”
O’Rourke, who had ended up at the Chalio Acosta Sports Center following a march in his hometown, had his most direct confrontation with the president yet as he continues to weigh a possible 2020 presidential campaign. At least one person in the crowd waved a “Beto for President 2020” flag with the token black-and-white design from his Senate campaign.
In addition to castigating Trump’s long-promised wall at the U.S-Mexico border, O’Rourke also advocated for protecting DREAMers and “making a stand for the truth against lies and hate and intolerance.”
"There is no bargain in which we can sacrifice some of our humanity to gain a little more security,” he continued, seemingly without referencing the president by name throughout his speech. “We know that we deserve and will lose both of them if we do. We stand for the best traditions and values of this country."
In his most recent public appearance prior to the rally, O’Rourke was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey in Times Square, where he promised the audience that a 2020 decision would be coming before the end of the month. While he made no additional comments about a bid for higher office on Monday night, he concluded with a kind of call to arms that could serve as a presidential warm-up.
“This is where we make our stand,” O’Rourke said. “The country is counting on us, let’s do it.”
O’Rourke told reporters on a call before the rally that he was spurred to join the rally after Trump claimed in last week’s State of the Union address that El Paso was “considered one of our nation’s most dangerous cities” until the construction of a border wall, the same argument Trump reiterated at his own rally.
“He claimed, falsely, that El Paso was a dangerous city made safe only by a wall,” O’Rourke told reporters. “He’s here in an effort to use this community as a prop to make his case for the border wall.”
Trump did not mention O’Rourke by name, but implied that the former congressman has “very little going for himself,” and hosted a mere “200 people, 300 people” at his competing rally.
Roughly 7,000 people attended O’Rourke’s speech, according to law enforcement officials.