President Donald Trump went to Texas to push his immigration policies but turned first to mocking Beto O'Rourke, the former Democratic congressman from Texas now mulling a presidential run, as the two held dueling rallies in El Paso on Monday evening.
In a case of pointed political counterprogramming, O'Rourke held an evening march against the wall with dozens of local civic, human rights and Hispanic groups, followed by a protest rally attended by thousands on a baseball field across street from the arena where Trump was holding a rally to make his case for the border wall.
Mocking O'Rourke's crowds as smaller than his, Trump predicted: "That may be the end of his presidential bid."
The first dueling rallies of the 2020 election season were set to serve as a preview of a heated yearslong fight over the direction of the country. And they made clear that Trump's long-promised border wall is sure to play an outsized role in the presidential race, as both sides use it to try to rally their supporters and highlight their contrasting approaches.
"With the eyes of the country upon us, all of us together are going to make our stand here in one of the safest cities in America," O'Rourke said as music and cheers from Trump's rally blared onto the field. "Safe not because of walls but in spite of walls."
A half-hour into his own rally, however, Trump had scarcely mentioned immigration, offering just a passing suggestion that those chanting "Build the Wall" switch to "Finish the Wall."
Meanwhile, negotiators on Capitol Hill announced that lawmakers had reached an agreement in principle to fund the government ahead of a midnight Friday deadline to avoid another shutdown. The emerging agreement was announced by a group of lawmakers, including Republican Sen. Richard Shelby and Democratic Rep. Nita Lowey, after a closed-door meeting.
Three people familiar with Congress' tentative border security deal have told The Associated Press that the accord would provide $1.375 billion to build 55 miles of new border barriers — well below the $5.7 billion that Trump demanded to build over 200 miles of wall along the Mexican boundary. The money will be for vertical steel slats called bollards, not a solid wall.
The talks had cratered over the weekend because of Democratic demands to limit immigrant detentions by federal authorities, but lawmakers apparently broke through that impasse Monday evening. Now they will need the support of Trump, who must sign the legislation.
Trump has insisted that large portions of the wall are already underway. But the work focuses almost entirely on replacing existing barriers. Work on the first extension — 14 miles in Texas' Rio Grande Valley — starts this month. The other 83 miles that his administration has awarded contracts for are replacement projects.
Trump has repeatedly pointed to El Paso to make his case that a border wall is necessary, claiming that barriers turned the city from one of the nation's most dangerous to one of its safest. But that's not true.
El Paso had a murder rate of less than half the national average in 2005, a year before the most recent expansion of its border fence. That's despite being just across the border from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, a city plagued by drug violence. The FBI's Uniform Crime Report shows that El Paso's annual number of reported violent crimes dropped from nearly 5,000 in 1995 to around 2,700 in 2016. But that corresponded with similar declines in violent crime nationwide and included periods when the city's crime rates increased year over year, despite new fencing and walls.
The Trump campaign released a video showing El Paso residents saying the wall helped reduce crime. But many in the city have bristled at the prospect of becoming a border wall poster child.
That includes O'Rourke, a potential 2020 candidate, who came close to unseating Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018 and maintains an army of small-dollar donors and a large social media following. While few Democratic candidates have focused on immigration in their launches, O'Rourke has described Trump's calls for the wall as the "cynical rhetoric of war, of invasions, of fear."
The El Paso rally is Trump's first since the November midterm elections and comes at a precarious moment for his presidency. Weakened by the longest government shutdown in American history, Trump is also contending with the ongoing investigation into Russian election meddling and a flurry of investigations by newly empowered majority Democrats in the House.
Trump advisers have long insisted that, fulfilled or not, the wall is a winning issue for the president, who has already sought to rewrite the "Build the Wall" chants that were a staple of his 2016 campaign to "Finish the Wall."
An AP-NORC poll conducted during last month's shutdown found that more Americans oppose a wall than support it. But nearly 8 in 10 Republicans are in favor, with only about 1 in 10 opposed.
Democrats, meanwhile, are adamant that Trump's insistence on a wall helps them and point to their 2018 midterm election gains in the House as proof that voters want to block Trump's agenda.
Associated Press writers Alan Fram, Zeke Miller and Kevin Freking in Washington and Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed to this report.