By Jennifer McEntee, Paul Ingram and Julio-Cesar Chavez
SAN DIEGO/TUCSON, Ariz./EL PASO, Texas (Reuters) – In San Diego, California, locals threw flip-flops at television images of U.S. President Donald Trump as he used his Tuesday State of the Union speech to demand a wall to defend a “dangerous southern border.”
More than 400 miles (644 km) east, along the U.S.-Mexico line, the crowd at the Republican headquarters in Tucson, Arizona, cheered and one man yelled “yeah!” as Trump promised a wall would make “illegal crossings go way, way down.”
And in El Paso, Texas, Trump appeared to anger much of the city after he said it was one of the most dangerous in the country – before a border wall was built in 2008.
Blaming illegal immigrants for ills ranging from overcrowded U.S. hospitals to working-class job losses, Trump renewed his call for funding for a border wall, and dug deep into divisions in U.S.-Mexico border communities.
“El Paso was safe before the border wall,” said Jon Barela, a Republican who runs the city’s Borderplex Alliance economic development group. “The President is living in an alternative universe based on a false narrative and offensive comments about our way of life.”
But El Paso horse trainer John Joyner backed Trump.
“When they built a wall, El Paso became one of the safer cities,” Joyner, 64, said at a “watch party” held by local Republicans. “We were able to figure who was coming through our ports of entry.”
Trump used about 17 minutes of a speech that ran one hour and 22 minutes to hammer against the “lawless state” of the border.
He argued that a wall could stop crime ranging from sex trafficking to gang violence. He said “large organized caravans” were “on the march to the United States” and troops were needed to stop them.
“If it were me, I would have gone a little harder,” said Pima County Republican Party Vice Chairman Chris King, at the Tucson “watch party.” “I’ve been out to the border, I’ve seen it, there are places where anything can get through.”
“A BIG WASTE OF MONEY”
In San Diego, high school teacher Stacy Salazar, whose students are primarily Hispanic and low-income, was appalled that Trump wanted to spend billions on walls when her school could not afford basic supplies.
She was among around 50 people at “Noche de Chanclazos” or flip-flop night. It was an event put on at an arts center for San Diegans to let off steam by hurling footwear at Trump’s television image projected on a wall as he spoke.
“People can find a way round the wall, it’s just a big waste of money,” said Salazar.
Trump’s demand for wall funding was at the center of the recent 35-day partial government shutdown. He agreed to reopen the government for three weeks without money for a border barrier, and congressional negotiators are working to find a compromise to avert another shutdown on Feb. 15.
In his speech, Trump suggested “compromise” and said he would be prepared to only build a wall in areas where the U.S. Border Patrol saw it necessary – a far cry from his 2016 campaign pledge for one from coast to coast.
On that note, Pima County, Arizona, Sheriff Mark Napier said his address was largely a “positive message.”
“The wall is only a portion of the president’s plan,” Napier said. “The plan includes a lot of stuff that I think would enjoy wide bipartisan support, but there’s an auditory shutdown when people say two words: the wall.”
The Reverend Robin Hoover, the head of Migrant Status Inc, who has spent 33 years working on border issues, blasted Trump’s speech.
“The biggest lie is that building the wall will dismantle the cartels,” he said. “Border enforcement means anyone who wants to smuggle drugs or get through the border have to use the cartels to be successful.”
In San Diego, every time Trump mentioned the word “wall,” the crowd shouted “No Wall!” A barrage of footwear hit Trump’s image when he said, “Walls save lives.”
“Border walls push people towards deadly crossing areas,” said Pedro Rios, director of event host American Friends Service Committee, a social justice group.
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(Reporting by Jennifer McEntee in San Diego, Paul Ingram in Tucson and Julio-Cesar Chavez in El Paso; Writing by Andrew Hay; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)