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The US-Mexico border is not a hellscape: debunking the Trump campaign’s founding myth

Early morning light falls over the combined cities of El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Donald Trump's campaign is about a lot of things, but his pledge to build “a big, fat, beautiful wall,” which Mexico is going to pay for, is indisputably its centerpiece. Trump is outlandish and offensive and yet far from the first political figure to paint the US-Mexico border as the unsecured font of criminal danger and existential dread. Voices on the right wing have long spoken of an invasion bringing crime and, especially after 9/11, terrorism. The political potency of “the border” is clear: We in reality have two land borders, but those words rarely evoke Canada.

Immigration moderates from both major parties have certainly used softer language but mostly sought to co-opt or outflank the right wing rather than to rebut them. In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton dramatically increased the size of the Border Patrol, which continued to balloon under Presidents Bush and Obama. As of 2015, the Border Patrol was staffed by more than 20,000 agents, up from just over 4,000 in 1992. There are hundreds of miles of fencing that wall off Mexico, and the roads of the American Southwest are occupied by checkpoints where normal constitutional rights against search and seizure do not apply.

I spoke to US Rep. Beto O'Rourke, who represents the El Paso, Texas, district where he grew up, about the fantastical role the border plays in American politics and the reality of the binational communities where millions of people make their home. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Daniel Denvir

The border is everywhere in the American political imagination and usually invoked alongside ominous adjectives like “porous” or “violent.” Obviously with Trump, it has become the stuff that nightmares are made of.

But El Paso is a pretty great city. Can you tell me about this disjuncture between the imagined border and the real border?

Beto O'Rourke

What Trump is saying about the border is nothing new. He’s just far more effective at this, and has raised the level of hysteria and anxiety and fear far higher than anyone’s been able to do before. But we found a 1981 edition of the El Paso Herald-Post that warns of a Libyan hit squad operating in Juárez. There, of course, was no Libyan terrorist organization operating in Juárez. Just like there’s no ISIS group in Juárez, which has been erroneously reported recently. Just like there’s no al-Qaeda operatives crossing through the border, which had been rumored after 9/11.

It turns out that — and this is confirmed by the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, the Director of the FBI, Secretary of Homeland Security — that never, at any time, has a terrorist or terrorist organization or terrorist plot used our border with Mexico to attack this country, or even to attempt to attack this country. The border has become the point where we project our fears, our anxieties, and also our solutions to those fears and anxieties.

So we’re scared about not just Mexicans, as Trump has said — who are “criminals and rapists” — but we’re scared about ISIS coming across, we’re scared about al-Qaeda. And so the solution is to build a 50-foot wall, and it makes enormous, intuitive sense to a lot of people who don’t understand that part of the world.

The reality is that the US-Mexico border has never been safer than it is today, in every way that you can measure. In 2000, there were 1.6 million northbound apprehensions. Last year, including the child refugees, families fleeing violence in the northern triangle of Central America, there were 330,000 apprehensions. The typical agent in the El Paso Border Patrol sector made six apprehensions for the entire year. So the border itself is as safe as it’s ever been.

The US side of the border — cities like El Paso, San Diego, Laredo, Brownsville — are far safer than the average American city in the interior of the US. So in every way that you can measure, those fears are unfounded.

And the last thing I want to tell you, Dan, is that it’s clear to me that we are the safest city in America not in spite of our proximity to Mexico, and the fact that a quarter of our population was born in another country, but precisely because of that. These immigrants in our community, documented and otherwise, are making our communities stronger and safer, are contributing to the good things that are happening, and are a big part of our success. Those are the myths, and that is the reality.

Daniel Denvir

To clarify on the border crossings and apprehensions: The research I’ve read says that the decline in unauthorized crossings is related more to bigger economic push-and-pull factors rather than being a result of the huge growth in the Border Patrol and other militarization measures.

Beto O’Rourke

Correct. I’m glad you asked it. Study after study has shown the reversal in Mexican migration to a point where it’s not net zero, it's actually a net loss. More Mexican nationals are going south from the US than are coming north, owed more to economic conditions in our two countries than to border security measures like walls, doubling the size of the Border Patrol, the drones that are flying overhead.

We really are at a point — no, actually we’re past the point — of diminishing returns. We’re spending about 19 and half billion dollars a year, and we’re searching for things for Border Patrol agents to do because there just are not the people to apprehend that you had back in 2000, when you had a very different economic dynamic.

There is a net decrease in the number of Mexicans and more migrants from countries like El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. A lot of them are not just migrants here, they’re asylees or applying for refugee status. They’re coming from Central America, and they’re not in any way attempting to evade apprehension. They are literally coming to our ports of entry and turning themselves in, seeking somebody in a Customs and Border Protection or Border Patrol uniform to request help.

So people need to know this, and I think that will allay many of the unfounded fears stirred up in this latest effort by Trump — but that also again have been sown for literally decades, unfortunately. We have our work cut out for us, and actually, talking to you is part of that, in terms of making sure people know the truth.

Daniel Denvir

In fact, the research I’ve seen shows that border militarization can actually backfire in the sense that many people in the past may have come over to the US for a little while and then returned home to Mexico decided to stay.

Beto O’Rourke

And not just Mexico: El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras. Yeah, there was almost a seasonal cycle where there was an unofficial guest worker program, for lack of a better phrase, whereby people would come to the United States for a season to work in the agriculture industry, for example, and then for Christmas go back to their country of origin, stay there for a few months or even a year, and then come back to the US and work in the informal economy.

With the growing militarization of the border, it’s been much harder to do that. It’s actually had the perverse effect of locking people into the US who otherwise would have gone back to their country of origin. So, good point: The unintended consequences of this are pretty serious.

There’s one sensational story, but important nonetheless, related to this, going back about 20 years, that kind of shows you the logical conclusion of this kind of thinking: the tragic death of Esequiel Hernández, a lifelong US citizen, while herding his family’s flock of goats on their property, which was near the US-Mexico border in Redford, Texas. The Clinton administration had deployed military service members to help quote-unquote “secure” the border, and one of them mistakenly, tragically, shot him and killed him.

It’s not just a waste of taxpayer resources; it is that militarization in border communities makes life harder for the people who live along the US-Mexico border. And I’ll tell you this on the real security front: When you are focused on where a problem is not — and again, there have been literally zero terrorists on the southern border — you take your eye off where the problem has proven to be in the past, whether that’s the northern border where terrorists have attempted to cross into the US, or our international airports, or — tougher for us to deal with but maybe more important — our own US citizens who use terror as a means of trying to accomplish their goals. And so focusing on and spending this exorbitant amount of money on the border reduces our ability to meet the threat where it really exists.

Daniel Denvir

You make the important point that for all of Trump’s extremism, maligning the border as this source of danger is nothing new. Politicians from both major parties, including President Obama, buy into this idea of pledging to secure the border and that by implication the border is not secure. Do you agree that the blame can go around beyond the right-wing fringe?

Beto O’Rourke

Yeah, the right-wing fringe shares the burden of the blame if you have folks like Steve King out of Iowa who for years before Trump’s candidacy was conflating Mexican migration with murder and criminal activity in this country, even though when you look at the data and the facts, immigrants commit crimes at a far lower level than do native-born US citizens.

To the point you’re making, I remember watching the president’s speech on his immigration policies, and one of the things that he stressed is, look, first we’re going to secure the border. And I think that maybe he — I’m certain he must really have believed that if he said that. Perhaps people feel like that is the politically necessary thing to say in order to gain Republican support to move forward with other things that we truly need to do, like immigration reform.

But it only adds to the impression the average American has that the border is out of control, that it’s lawless, that it’s a security concern that must be contained — a complete departure from reality. And not just reality in terms of my impression of life in El Paso, but literally the observable, objective factual existence of the border in any way you want to look at it, any way you want measure it.

And for those who say, well, look maybe these bad things haven’t happened yet, but I’m certain that they’re gonna at some point try to do this — people can rest assured that at this point we’re spending 19 and a half, almost 20 billion dollars a year. We’ve doubled the size of the Border Patrol in the last 10 years. We have aerostat blimps. We’re now flying drones. The Republicans in the House proposed setting up forward-operating bases on the border. We’ve never been more vigilant against the potential of a threat there.

But I gotta tell ya, and I think this may be the spirit of your question, I think there’s something to the fact that the northern border with Canada is where you have had terrorists try to infiltrate this country, almost successfully, but our fears are consistently and historically projected on the southern border.

I think that’s because at the southern border, this country meets the rest of the world. It doesn’t necessarily look like the majority of this country. It doesn’t speak the language the majority of this country speaks and is the source of people who are not like us.

So I can wring my hands and pull my hair and gnash my teeth, or I can try to do a better job. A lot of this is on us, those who live on the US-Mexico border, of sharing the reality of it, of how extraordinarily beautiful it is, how warm it is, how safe it is, and what an amazing treasure this is. I mean, it’s just fucking beautiful to have 3 million people from two different countries speaking two different languages, two cultures, all together in this one binational metroplex.

And it is an engine for economic growth and job creation. About 6 million US jobs are connected to US-Mexico trade that happens at our land points of entry on the border. And demographically, the border describes the future of the country. This is what the country will look like increasingly, and what it will look like is an incredibly safe place that is successful, and those things that are most important in terms of where you want to raise a family, your quality of life, and your ability to be successful.

That’s our challenge: telling that factual story in a compelling way. Unfortunately, the most compelling thing to us as humans are things that scare the shit out of us. So when you say this is a source of rapists or terrorists or criminals, you don’t have to say a whole bunch more to get people. To tell them, well, there were only 300,000 apprehensions last year — that’s factually correct; it tells a story. But we’ve got to work on the emotional appeal of the border. And the positives are much more difficult to stir people up with than these false claims that make us really anxious.

Daniel Denvir

El Paso and Ciudad Juárez for a long time were true sister cities. And many still have family members on the other side of the border and work on the other side. But for years, border militarization has made living a cross-border life increasingly difficult. Can you tell me about how these national security state policies decided in Washington impact life on the ground in El Paso and Juárez?

Beto O’Rourke

At a minimum, the increasing militarization of the border and almost exclusive focus on the security dynamic creates inconveniences for people who live on one side of the border, work on the other or go to school on the other side, or visit family or friends, or just really live life in what is in many ways a true binational community, two halves of one community that happen to be in different countries. Last year there were 32 million documented crossings between El Paso and Juárez.

Daniel Denvir

Wow.

Beto O’Rourke

And that gives you an idea of the volume of traffic and just how much a city those two communities really are — just one large, truly metropolitan city. And that’s despite how hard it is to cross sometimes. Crossing back into El Paso, you may wait 15 minutes one day. The next day, you may wait three hours. And there’s sometimes little rhyme or reason to the wait times and how many Customs and Border Protection inspection booths at the bridges are open. You may be in a car, you may be crossing by foot or bicycle, you may be on a bus, you may be driving a tractor-trailer full of ladders. That unpredictability is at a minimum an inconvenience and at a maximum has resulted in some truly horrific outcomes.

On the mild end of the spectrum, right after the Boston Marathon bombings, the country’s national security response was to scrutinize student visa holders regardless of where they are and what threats they had historically posed. Six thousand students at the University of Texas at El Paso are Mexican nationals who live in Ciudad Juárez, so they wake up in their home in Juárez, eat breakfast, drink a cup of coffee, get on their bike or drive in a car, ride a bus, cross the border, and attend the University of Texas at El Paso. In kind of a throwback to better days in our state, Texas had the vision to treat Mexican nationals the same as Texas residents for in-state tuition purposes. So it’s a really good deal. It’s something I’m really proud of that Texas did, probably something that Texas wouldn’t do again today if it had the chance.

So all these students who are part of our community, after the connection between the Tsarnaev brothers and the student visa is made, receive additional scrutiny; they’re delayed, in some cases, hours when they go through secondary and tertiary questioning. And in one really egregious case, a student was handcuffed to the bench in the interrogation room, and I actually received a call from the president of the University of Texas at El Paso who never calls me for anything and says hey, you need to look into this. This is absolutely out of control. That’s on the mild side of it.

The most egregious case recently that I can think of is the woman, the US citizen, who was searched for drugs at the port of entry.

She’s crossing back into El Paso, and she’s suspected of having drugs, so she’s separated from the line and taken into secondary for questioning. She says she does not have any drugs, so they then do a pat-down search. They, then, on the bridge, I believe do a strip search, find no drugs. This is where it gets really horrifying. They then, against her will, transport her to a hospital in El Paso called University Medical Center that is, as the crow flies, probably three, four miles from entrance to the United States in El Paso, Texas, USA — and then chain her to a hospital bed and explore her vaginal and anal cavities.

Daniel Denvir

Jesus.

Beto O’Rourke

Medical professionals perform the search with Border Patrol in the room watching. Then they don’t find any drugs. Then they force her — against her will — to perform an X-ray. No drugs are found. She’s ultimately released and then sent a bill for the procedure by University Medical Center.

She has since settled with University Medical Center for many multiples of [the bill]. But she was effectively raped. And what’s important for people to know who aren’t from the border is that you don’t necessarily need to have probable cause. Many of your constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure are essentially suspended at the border.

And the border is not just the physical, international boundary line that you and I might think of when we hear the word “border.” The border extends for miles, for legal purposes to do things like those that were done to this woman, into the interior. So when she was in that hospital room, chained to the bed, essentially being raped looking for drugs that she didn’t have, she was at the border, and her rights were suspended. She didn’t have access to a lawyer. No Miranda warnings. Nothing. So that gives you the spectrum. From a student being harassed, detained, handcuffed, missing their final exams, humiliated in front of other bridge customers to a woman who went through one of the most horrifying experiences that I can imagine.

Daniel Denvir

That is utterly heartbreaking. It’s a disgusting, horrifying story. So many of these measures are put in place because of the sense of this danger posed by Mexico, and drug violence obviously has been horrible in Mexico.

But for all of our stigmatizing of Mexico, Americans rarely acknowledge our responsibility for driving that violence on a systematic level. It’s American guns flooding south that are often used in a conflict that to a large degree is over drug trafficking routes to reach drug consumers in the United States. It seems like for all of the complaining that Americans do about Mexico’s bad influence, Mexico would have a really good case to make the inverse argument.

Beto O’Rourke

Right. I don’t know if I could say it any better than you just did, but we’re the world’s largest market for illegal drugs and Mexico has the extreme misfortune to be our neighbor to the south, the country through which the vast majority of those drugs either originate or transit. And when you have that extraordinary demand, the extreme “visionary policies” that accompany it focused almost exclusively on interdiction, and viewing this as primarily a criminal issue creates such a premium for those drugs that kids in Juárez are literally willing to kill or be killed to get those drugs in the United States.

So, yes, the culpability is very clear, and it largely rests with us, with the United States, and yet it is very convenient, politically, to blame it on Mexico, and to try to push the solution to the problem on them and other originating and transiting countries when it’s really with us. It’s the demand.

Daniel Denvir

Violence is way, way down in Juárez from the really catastrophic rate it was at for a few years, though obviously the city has a lot of serious problems. Americans used to frequently cross the border for a margarita or a burrito down the Avenida Juárez. Now they very, very rarely do so. Does El Paso have a role to play in helping Juárez revive its image and tourism industry, and the sort of more casual cross-border traffic that used to be in place?

Beto O’Rourke

Yeah. Yes, we do, and just part of who I am as a lifelong El Pasoan, I am in Juárez frequently. Go there with my family, take friends, visit with friends over there, and then, also just part of my job I visit maquilas, visit with their political leadership, and in doing so make the case that, one, they’re part of our community, and my job responsibilities extend to Juárez in that regard. And two, it’s very safe for me to do this and I don’t, as the consulate in Juárez has asked me to do, I never notify them. I don’t have a detail. All that stuff is silly and absolutely unnecessary. It is far safer than it was when it was the deadliest city in the world. Importantly, and you pointed this out, it is not as safe as it needs to be and as it should be.

Daniel Denvir

When I was last in El Paso, I found it heartbreaking how many people, often Hispanic, told me that it had been years and years since they had last visited Juárez. Do you hear that a lot?

Beto O’Rourke

I do. In fact, we every year help put on this US-Mexico summit, and we try to bring together big leaders and thinkers from both countries, in El Paso and in Juárez, to discuss the issues of the day. One of the things that we added to that these last two years is a binational 10K run. Starts in downtown El Paso, crosses the Stanton Street–Avenida Lerdo bridge into Juárez. Then you run through Juárez and run through the downtown, go past the cathedral and the mission that’s almost 350 years old, and end at the international line at the Paso del Norte bridge coming back into El Paso.

And the first year, a thousand people ran it. This year, a similar number. And I can’t tell you how many people at the finish line as we’re talking, say, “Man, I’m so glad you guys are doing this run. This is the first time I’ve been to Juárez in five years, 10 years, 15 years, and now I’m going back.” It just ends the national mythmaking about how dangerous it is. Maybe unconsciously or maybe consciously, and it takes an experience like that in some cases to realize there’s nothing for me to be afraid of. It’s okay. So, yeah, I think that’s something we have to work on. We’re going to continue to push things like that that give people an opportunity to spend some time in Juárez.

Daniel Denvir

Okay, last question. What do you say to people who say burritos aren’t real Mexican food?

Beto O’Rourke

I don’t know. I didn’t know that that was a question. I was born and raised in El Paso. We have by far the best Mexican food anywhere. You know, in New Mexico, you get a lot of cheese on everything, a lot of green chiles. In San Antonio, you get something, kind of a Tex-Mex, something altogether different. El Paso really has the best, by far, not draped in cheese, not drowned in sauce. All the flavors come out. The food stands on its own, and burritos are part of that. Yeah. They’re real Mexican food.

Daniel Denvir is a Providence, Rhode Island-based journalist who writes about criminal justice, the war on drugs, politics, and immigration.

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