Talking Border Security with a Border-Town Mayor

The Mexican/U.S. border wall near downtown El Paso

The Mexican/U.S. border wall near downtown El Paso Shutterstock

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Dee Margo is the mayor of El Paso, Texas, who's sparred publicly with President Donald Trump on border security.

As mayor of El Paso and a resident of the city for more than four decades, Dee Margo is well versed in what it means to live, and govern, in a border town.

Margo, a Republican, found himself thrust into the national spotlight after President Donald Trump singled out El Paso in his State of the Union address last month, saying that the city “used to have extremely high rates of violent crime—one of the highest in the entire country—and [was] considered one of our nation's most dangerous cities. Now, immediately upon its building, with a powerful barrier in place, El Paso is one of the safest cities in our country." The following week, Trump held a rally in the city. 

Fact-checkers quickly determined that the president's statements about the Texas city were false. Margo, watching the State of the Union speech from the airport, immediately issued his own rebuttal on Twitter. 

“El Paso was NEVER one of the MOST dangerous cities in the US,” he wrote. “We‘ve had a fence for 10 years and it has impacted illegal immigration and curbed criminal activity. It is NOT the sole deterrent. Law enforcement in our community continues to keep us safe.”

Margo, who’s served as El Paso’s mayor since June 2017, is at SXSW this weekend for the Civic I/O Mayors Summit and answered some questions for Route Fifty about life in a border town.

Route 50: Tell me about El Paso and why you like living there.

Mayor Dee Margo: I’m married to a third-generation El Pasoan, and my grandchildren are fifth-generation El Pasoans. El Paso gives me roots, but I didn’t grow up there. We moved every three years when I was growing up, and I hated that. Fortuitously we ended up in Alabama, which led to me getting a football scholarship at Vanderbilt University, where I met my wife. And that’s how we ended up in El Paso.

It’s hard to describe unless you come down. El Paso and Juárez [the city across the border in Mexico] are unique—it’s almost 400 years of a binational and bicultural relationship. We get mischaracterized a lot. I’ve been spending a lot of my time the past few weeks correcting misimpressions about El Paso. I keep saying that if you want to talk about immigration and immigration reform, you need to come to El Paso. San Diego is 20 miles away from the border, but we’re right there on it.

R50: You’ve never served as mayor in a time when your city’s proximity to the border wasn’t highly politicized. Is that something you thought about when you ran for mayor in 2017?

DM: I always thought about promoting El Paso and its economic opportunities and jobs and capital investments and those kinds of things. In Texas, municipal races are all nonpartisan, but I served previously in the state legislature as a Republican. I served for one term and was not re-elected, and after that I was asked to chair the board of the El Paso Independent School District. We revamped everything, and after I finished that people started asking me to run for mayor. Had it been a partisan race I doubt I would have had a chance because El Paso has always been very blue, but because it’s nonpartisan, I won.

I care passionately about El Paso, and that’s the whole reason I ran for political office to begin with—I felt like we weren’t getting proper representation in Austin. Here, the difference is that I’m a whole lot closer to people. I have no political aspirations. I’m not out here to become a talking head or move up some kind of political ladder. I have no desire to do so. I deal with what I call the three P’s—public safety, potholes and parks.

R50: What is the situation actually like at the border there?

DM: We have 23,000 legal pedestrians that come north every day. There are 28 bridges in the state of Texas to Mexico and we have six of them in El Paso. We used to get 200 to 400 asylum-seeking migrants being released here by [Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE] every day. We’re up to over 500. This morning I got an update that we’re at about 670. Over 500 is a bear for us.

R50: How does the city handle that?

DM: Our NGO, Annunciation House, does a great job. They have about 20 shelters, and they work with migrants who, after being processed by ICE, they’re essentially told, ‘Come back for your hearing,’ which could be in several years. We assist, through our NGO, to get them to their sponsors. Usually the sponsor is supposed to pay for their transportation. Sometimes that’s bus and sometimes that’s airfare, but if they don’t have the resources financially then the nonprofits come up with that.

The city, out of our Office of Emergency Management, works with Annunciation House. We’ve used city buses to provide transportation. The agreement we have with ICE is that they give us at least 24 hours’ advance notice about the release of migrants so we can prepare for them.

I’ve had numerous meetings with [Customs and Border Patrol, or CBP] and ICE. Basically they’re good folks trying to do the best they can, given the federal laws we’re operating under. You can’t play the blame game with them—they’re administering the laws as written. The blame belongs in Washington, D.C. with the lack of character to step up and do what needs to be done related to immigration reform.

Because the immigration process is getting worse at the border. We were warned in October about the expansion, so the city, through the Office of Emergency Management, was told what to expect. It’s significant, and something’s gotta give.

R50: U.S. Customers and Border Patrol (CBP) wants to build a massive new facility in El Paso to help process families seeking asylum. What are your thoughts on that project?

DM: They’re trying to set up a larger shelter because they’re overwhelmed at their processing center in El Paso. They don’t have enough space even to process them. We’re trying to assist in that and make it as humane as possible, but they’re doing the best they can. Our situation is, we don’t want a shelter that’s built with a bunch of chain-link fences and looks like cages. That’s not conducive to the community or to those migrants.

The real issue, the root cause of this, is the failure in Washington to have the intestinal fortitude over the last 40 years on both sides of the aisle to deal with a rational immigration process. Until they quit making this a political argument, if you want to talk about border security and otherwise, they need to deal with the immigration situation.

R50: Have any politicians sought your counsel on immigration policy or come to El Paso to see the border situation firsthand?

DM: I think there’s more talking-head rhetoric than political rhetoric. We haven’t had that many come to El Paso. You’d think we’d be where they’d come, but they don’t. Our Texas legislators have been down, but of course they’re here anyway. When the president came down, my comment was that I was pleased they were coming, but he landed in the dark and he left in the dark. It was purely a political rally.

R50: What’s it like to hear the president single out your city in a way that doesn’t align with the reality you see day to day?

DM: What he was echoing were comments made by our attorney general Ken Paxton. He repeated it in the State of the Union and I guess he’s like a junkyard dog—he didn’t back off. But those statements were non-factual. The fence is part and parcel of border security, but it was not the be-all and end-all panacea. That fence, really a replacement for an older chain-link fence, stopped a lot of larcenies and things like that, but it didn’t have that dramatic of an effect on our crime rate at all. We’re one of the safest cities for our size, not because of a fence but because of our community policing and our culture.

I’ve invited him down. You want to talk about immigration, you want to talk about the border, come to El Paso and see it. I’ve done the best I can. All I can do is have my conversations and continue to reiterate what the facts are. I’m not condemning anybody—these are the facts. All I can do, and what I will do, is defend El Paso from any kind of mischaracterization or misrepresentation until my dying day, whether I’m mayor or not. I don’t know what else I can do.

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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