United States 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 duelling rallies in El Paso.

In a case of pointed political counterprogramming, O'Rourke held an evening march 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 duelling rallies of the 2020 election season were set to serve as a preview of a heated years-long fight over the direction of the country.

Advertisement

And they made it clear that Trump's 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 on to the field. "Safe not because of walls but in spite of walls."

Trump suggested that those chanting "Build the Wall" switch to "Finish the Wall."

In Washington, negotiators on Capitol Hill announced that lawmakers had reached an agreement in principle to fund the government ahead of a Saturday NZT deadline to avoid another shutdown. The emerging agreement was announced by a group of lawmakers, including Republican Senator Richard Shelby and Democratic Congresswoman Nita Lowey, after a closed-door meeting.

Three people familiar with Congress' tentative border security deal have told AP that the accord would provide US$1.375 billion to build 90km of new border barriers — well below the US$5.7 billion that Trump demanded to build over 320km of wall along the Mexican boundary. The money will be for vertical steel slats called bollards, not a solid wall.

Supporters cheer US President Donald Trump at the El Paso County Coliseum. Photo / AP
Supporters cheer US President Donald Trump at the El Paso County Coliseum. Photo / AP

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. 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 — 23km in Texas' Rio Grande Valley — starts this month. The other 134km 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 5000 in 1995 to around 2700 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.

- AP