Former Democrat Representative Beto O'Rourke pledges to make El Paso even safer without a wall as US President Donald Trump charges ahead with his pledge to build a wall.

Former Democratic congressman Beto O’Rourke and President Donald Trump trade political blows on Monday in rival rallies in El Paso, Texas. February 11, 2019.
Former Democratic congressman Beto O’Rourke and President Donald Trump trade political blows on Monday in rival rallies in El Paso, Texas. February 11, 2019. (AFP/Reuters collage)

US President Donald Trump charged ahead Monday with his pledge to build a wall at the US-Mexico border, skimming over the details of lawmakers' tentative deal that would give him far less than he's been demanding and declaring he's "setting the stage" to deliver on his signature campaign promise.

In the first duelling rallies of the 2020 campaign season, Trump's "Finish the Wall" rally in El Paso went head-to-head against counterprogramming by former Representative Beto O'Rourke, a former Democratic congressman and potential Trump rival in 2020, who argued that walls cause more problems than they solve.

TRT World's Jon Brain reports from El Paso.

The rallies across the street from each other served as a preview of the heated yearslong fight over the direction of the country that has now begun in earnest. 

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.

Standing in a packed stadium under a giant American flag and banners saying "FINISH THE WALL," Trump insisted that large portions of the project are already under construction and vowed to fulfil his 2016 campaign promise regardless of what happens in Congress.

"Walls work," said Trump, whose rally was repeatedly interrupted by protesters. "Walls save lives."

O'Rourke, meanwhile, held a countermarch with dozens of local civic, human rights and Hispanic groups in his hometown, followed by a protest rally attended by thousands on a baseball field within shouting distance from the arena where Trump spoke.

"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. "Safe not because of walls but in spite of walls."

TRT World's Jon Brain has more.

Battling it out

More than a half-hour in his rally, Trump had scarcely mentioned immigration, offering just a passing suggestion that those chanting "Build the Wall" switch to "Finish the Wall." Instead, he mocked O'Rourke, insisting the Texan has "very little going for himself except he's got a great first name" and deriding his crowd size, even though both men drew thousands.

"That may be the end of his presidential bid," Trump quipped, adding: "You're supposed to win in order to run."

The rallies began moments after 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.

El Paso: 'Low on crime'

"You know where it made a difference is right here in El Paso," Trump said Monday. "They're full of crap when they claim it hasn't made a big difference," he said at the rally.

In his State of the Union speech last week, Trump said the border fence separating El Paso from Mexico had reduced the city's high crime rate.

El Paso's Republican mayor, Dee Margo, said the city had been safe for years before the wall was built.

"We were, I think, the No. 2 or No. 3 safest city before the fence went up and we progressed into No. 1," he told Fox News. "We were significantly low on crime to begin with and always have been."

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.

O’Rourke told Oprah Winfrey last week he would make a final decision about running for president by the end of the month.

He declined to discuss a potential run on Monday.

"I’m following the community's lead tonight, no less, no more," he said on the call.

O'Rourke would bring fundraising and grassroots firepower to an already crowded Democratic field hoping to take on Trump in next year's election. 

Source: TRTWorld and agencies