Let’s face it, this week’s State of the Union address was so chalk full of lies, exaggerations and misrepresentations that bestowing the title of Alternative Fact of the Week is a fool’s errand. But here in Charm City there was one claim that resonates particularly strongly with a populace that has suffered more than its share of violent crime. As part of his pitch for a border wall, President Donald Trump pointed to a city slightly larger than Baltimore that “used to have extremely high rates of violent crime — one of the highest in the country, and [was] considered one of our nation’s most dangerous cities.” But that was before they installed a “powerful barrier” and now it’s “one of our safest cities.”
He was speaking of El Paso, Texas. At its worst ever, El Paso suffered more than 6,500 violent crimes in 1993, but today it’s fewer than 2,500, according to FBI statistics. The same survey points to 6,095 in Baltimore in 2017 — keeping in mind that Charm City has about 72,000 fewer residents than El Paso. And don’t even get started about murder rates. El Paso averaged 23 homicides per year between 1960 and 2018, according to that city’s police department. In Baltimore, which recorded 309 homicides last year alone, 23 represents two months tops. To get to 309 in El Paso, you have to add up all the murders since 2001.
Of course, President Trump’s point was that El Paso’s safe streets are entirely the product of a border wall and, of course, that isn’t even close to being true. The city had barriers back in 1993, and an expansion of them authorized during the George W. Bush administration didn’t start until 2008. As it happens, violent crime was already in steep decline and continued on that path, which generally reflects national trends. But don’t take our word for it — or even all the fact-checkers who have repeatedly pointed this out. Just pick up a copy of U.S. News & World Report, which ranked El Paso as one of the nation’s safest cities in — wait for it — 2005, or three years before the most recent border fence project started.
Or you might listen to El Paso Mayor Donald “Dee” Margo, who felt compelled to tweet a correction after the State of the Union: “El Paso was NEVER one of the MOST dangerous cities in the US.” (He’ s a Republican, incidentally.) And it wasn’t the first time El Paso officials had to point that out. One year ago, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed something similar (based on an inaccurate New York Post op-ed), and city officials disputed the claim then, too.
Now, imagine another U.S. president spouting such an obnoxious and blatant lie during a major address while the opposition party is expected to politely sit on its hands. Barack Obama got shouted down by a Republican congressman for merely debunking the myth that illegal immigrants were going to qualify for government-financed health care. And that wasn’t a lie. By the time President Trump got around to making stuff up about El Paso, he was already headed toward double-digit prevarications.
Take, for example, his claims about human trafficking and border walls. “Human traffickers and sex traffickers take advantage of the wide open areas between our ports of entry to smuggle thousands of young girls and women into the United States and to sell them into prostitution and modern-day slavery,” Mr. Trump said. Boy, that sounds awful, but just about every word of that isn’t true. The U.S. Department of Justice prosecuted a total of 230 cases of human trafficking in the last fiscal year. Most cases involve U.S. citizens. Rarely do they involve illegal entry between checkpoints at the southern border.
We mention Baltimore’s crime in relation to Mr. Trump’s claims about El Paso not because there’s some perverse competition for which city is more dangerous but because it is the misplaced focus of the president that is itself dangerous. If Mr. Trump wants to force Congress to spend another $5.7 billion on anything, why not push a few billion our way and create 21st century jobs, or a modern public transit system that serves jobless neighborhoods, or transform Baltimore public schools into the envy of Maryland? Now, those are policies that could actually have a positive impact on crime, and they don’t even require the heavy lifting of making up facts or stoking fears of Central American refugees.