As the president threatens a border adjustment tax, Beto ORourke has set his sights on Ted Cruzs Senate seat with a defense of free trade typical of El Pasoans, who describe Trumps anti-Mexican rhetoric as deeply personal

The Star-Spangled Banner is the Mount Everest of national anthems many attempt it, but few ever hit its peak. In a school theater on the hot and dusty outskirts of El Paso, Texas, high school student Gisselle Castaneda nails the high notes to a hearty round of applause from the 100 or so locals gathered to meet their congressman, Beto ORourke.

These are strange days in El Paso, the pretty little border town that has acted as the bridge to Mexico for 337 years. El Paso and its Mexican neighbor, Ciudad Juarez, pretty much function as a single unit. At the end of El Paso Street, a bridge, Paso del Norte, groans with some of the 200,000-plus vehicles that cross it from Mexico each month. Another 400,000-plus walk over: they come to work, shop, go to school or visit friends and relatives, as they have done for centuries.

Now a giant, blimp-like shadow hangs over El Paso: Donald Trump. During his campaign, Trump railed against Mexican drug pushers and rapists and promised to build a big, beautiful wall to keep out the citys southern neighbors. Since his election he has threatened to rip up the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), which cut barriers between Mexico, the US and Canada and which many here say has helped El Paso thrive. Now he is threatening a border adjustment tax on goods coming in from Mexico, a tax that he says will pay for the wall and that critics say could trigger a trade war that would hit El Paso first but then spread across the US and the world.

At ORourkes town hall meeting, locals are worried. Student Ray Dominguez was born and raised in El Paso and like many here has family in Juarez. El Paso has always been a very accepting place. Trump is dividing people. The one good thing I would say is that we are more proud of who we are, he says.

Texas congressman Beto ORourke, described by the Washington Post as looking more like a Kennedy than the Kennedys do. Photograph: Dominic Rushe for the Guardian

And in this topsy turvy political climate, when a Republican president rails against free trade, the climate change-accepting, LGBT-friendly, free trade-loving ORourke is having a moment.

A rising Democrat star who the Washington Post recently said looks more like a Kennedy than the Kennedys do, ORourke is set to challenge the oleaginous Ted Cruz for his Senate seat in 2018. When he does, ORourke will be the man arguing for free trade while his Republican rival, Trumps one-time chief critic and now frenemy, will be left defending Republican policies that ORourke (and many far to the right of him) argue threaten not just the economy but American safety.

Not a brick of Trumps monumental wall has been laid, no details of the border adjustment tax have been finalized and Nafta still stands, but the impact of all this anti-trade, anti-Mexican rhetoric is already being felt in the region, says ORourke.

El Paso and Ciudad Juarez

On the Mexican side of the border there are organized campaigns encouraging shoppers to stay in Mexico. El Pasos retail trade is worth $12.24bn a year, and some $980m of that comes from residents of northern Mexico. On the US side, fear is keeping some undocumented people inside and out of the local economy. The fear is that a broken tail light, an arbitrary arrest, could land people in a deportation proceeding. So people arent going out to buy a bucket of chicken, a six-pack, get those diapers or whatever. Theres less cooperation with law enforcement, people just dont feel comfortable dealing with law enforcement, says ORourke.

Its changing the character and the safety of a community like El Paso. Before it didnt matter what your immigration status was, whether you were born here or not you felt comfortable working with law enforcement to report a crime or abuse, he says. They knew law enforcement was focused on keeping us safe. Now that focus has changed and ironically it is making us less safe.

Robert Moore, editor of the El Paso Times, agrees. The Times recently reported on the case of an undocumented woman who had sought a court order against a man she accused of abusing her. The alleged abuser told immigration and customs enforcement (Ice) that she was undocumented and when she would be appearing in court. Agents arrested her as she left the courthouse. Trump might say that is what he wants to happen but for us, thats deeply upsetting, says Moore, who sits on the board of the Center Against Sexual and Family Violence and expects the case to have a chilling effect on reports of abuse.

Like many El Pasoans, Moore is prone to wax lyrical about the good old days when the border was little more than a mild inconvenience. When Moore started his career in the city, he and his colleagues would nip across the border for cheap beers and pool after work. Crossing into Mexico is still fairly quick, but coming back in a car it can take hours to drive the six short miles that divide the two cities. Its not all Trumps fault; border security has been on the rise since 9/11 and was considerably beefed up as Juarez was torn apart by drug-related gun violence a decade ago.

With goods in hand, pedestrians walk towards the Paso del Norte international bridge to cross from El Paso into Ciudad Juarez. Photograph: The Washington Post/Getty Images

The proposed wall doesnt seem to faze locals at all. Firstly, they argue it will be a boost to the local economy. A $20bn wall would inject $10bn into the Texas economy and create 144,000 jobs, says Tom Fullerton, economics professor at the University of Texas at El Paso. But over the long run it wont have much impact at all, he says.

Locals dont think it will have much impact on drug trade or illegal entries. Drug smugglers are already using mini cannons like the ones used to fire T-shirts into the crowds at sports events to fire their drugs over the border. What they cant go over, theyll go under. More tunnels will be dug.

But El Pasoans are genuinely angered by Trumps constant attacks on their neighbors and his portrayal of a wild west border that few here recognise. Its deeply personal, says Moore. People here feel hes not just attacking the border, hes attacking me. Everyone in El Paso knows someone who is undocumented and the way this administration has talked about them is seen as really insulting.

Thats not to say that many in El Paso do not sympathize with Trumps supporters. The city was one of the first victims of globalization and profoundly impacted by Nafta, says Fullerton.

Once the jeans capital of the US and home to manufacturers including Levi Strauss and Farah at its peak the second largest employer in the city El Paso fell on hard times as trade barriers fell and manufacturing jobs went south of the border. But the city bounced back. The unemployment rate in El Paso was close to 12% when Nafta was signed in 1994 and it is now less than 5%. The border region has benefitted from Nafta; so has the entire country, says Fullerton.

Mexican trade is vital to Texas. Some $98bn in exports and imports passed through the El Paso customs district in 2015. According to the Dallas Federal Reserve, a 10% increase in manufacturing on the Mexican side of the border increases employment by 2.8% in El Paso, 2.2% in neighbouring Brownsville, 4.6% in Laredo and 6.6% in McAllen.

People want simple solutions. They want to be told, Dont worry, we will sort it, says Fullerton. But economics is not simple. And neither, right now, is politics.

Washington is in Easter recess and while Trump plays golf in Florida, the rightwing billionaire Koch brothers are spending millions backing ads attacking his border tax plans, arguing they amount to a consumer tax that will increase costs on everything from clothes and TVs to food and will land the average US family with a $1,700 bill. The ads are playing nationwide in states that elected a president who promised them change but who now, the Kochs argue, is threatening their livelihoods and their pocketbooks.

Attacking from the left is ORourke. The five states that would be hurt by a border adjustment tax, which would essentially precipitate a trade war, are mid-western states, states like Michigan. Factory floor jobs in Detroit are inextricably connected to factory floor jobs in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. If you break that connection with a tax or you continue to try to humiliate Mexico, you jeopardize not just jobs in Mexico and El Paso but in Michigan and across the United States.

What was once a proposed 20% border tax may well end up being something far smaller, says Fullerton, but he still believes there is a good chance that some sort of tax is coming. The sentiment in the country is so anti-trade that I think Congress would be reluctant to vote against a serious proposal, he says.

In the baking-hot parking lot of the College, Career and Technology Academy ORourke, the left-leaning liberal Democrat, sets out the case for free trade and against new taxes. America needs to listen to Trumps supporters. Too many have been left behind, he says. But they need retraining not tariffs. We need not be paranoid and fearful of the future, of other countries. Thats not America. Thats not Texas. This is a dark time he says. But I am confident it is getting better.

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