U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a former El Paso city council member, ousted eight-term incumbent Democrat Sylvester Reyes (who was backed by Democratic heavyweights including former President Bill Clinton) in a pitched primary battle last May. Now, 100 days into his first term in Congress, El Paso’s new congressman seems to be acclimating comfortably to life on the Hill. Texas Monthly caught up with the lanky, Ivy League-educated freshman in Washington D.C. on April 25. O’Rourke, perched on a leather couch in his sparsely decorated office in the Longworth Building, mused on U.S.-Mexico trade, immigration reform, and the debate on border security.
Texas Monthly: You marked your 100th day in Congress earlier this month. Can you describe some of your impressions of the experience up to this point?
Beto O’Rourke: It’s really been an amazing time so far. You have to do everything very quickly—hire your staff, lease your office space, be seated on your committees, and get to work immediately. The pace was just amazing—and overwhelming. Now, three and a half months in I feel a lot more settled. I understand what I’m doing and what it is possible to do a lot more clearly.
We’ve been very tightly focused on the border, veteran’s affairs, and issues related to Fort Bliss and we’ve had some early successes in these areas. We authored a tuition assistance bill for soldiers—that was stripped through the sequester—and got it included in a continuing resolution that funds the government through the end of this fiscal year. That was a huge victory for us because we have 33,000 active duty soldiers in El Paso. Many of them had been calling, writing, and emailing, saying “I signed up in high school partly because the military would help pay for college and now you have taken this away. What’s going on?”
TM: You also worked to help pass a measure that could cut down on wait times at international bridges, correct?
BO: Yes, we worked with a number of other members of the Texas delegation on a bill specific to cross-border issues, the Cross-Border Trade Enhancement Act, which will create a pilot program in five border communities to help fund what U.S. Customs and Border Protection should be doing but isn’t doing—you know, paying for more inspectors, customs officers, technology, and infrastructure. Language from this bill was also included in the continuing resolution. El Paso desperately wants to be—should be, needs to be, has to be—selected for the pilot program if we’re going to be successful. Our whole way of life, our economy, and who we are as a people depends on our connection to Mexico. Right now we have two-, three-, to four- hour wait times on the bridges. If we can’t figure out how to address this problem then you just choke El Paso.
And the idea for the program originated in El Paso: in 2011, the city council was so exasperated with the inability of CBP to staff the ports, they said, “Here, we’ll raise the toll on the bridges and give you the money, and you use it for overtime.” But there was no provision in federal law to accept it and it’s taken a couple of sessions of congress to address this—I think it was introduced last session by Congressman Henry Cuellar, and then again this session. El Paso has since reaffirmed its commitment to the project, putting up $2.5 million towards it, and we’re now looking for private sector partners who might also put up some money because you could argue they have the most to gain. But we’re doing all this without knowing the criteria is from CBP. It’s like this competition has been set and we’re competing without knowing the rules, or what the criteria are or where the finish line is. So we’re just going to go as hard out as we can.
TM: You’ve also voiced your concern that the border is becoming too militarized. How would you address this?
BO: I had my first committee mark-up meeting yesterday to go over the 2013 border security bill. Border security is obviously going to be the trigger for comprehensive immigration reform, and within the security bill that’s moving through the house Homeland Security committee the idea is “Lock it down, beef it up, wall it over, fly the drones.” We proposed three amendments that basically will help facilitate trade and measure the economic impact of the things that we’re doing at our ports of entry. Again, this is very important to El Paso, but also really important for the U.S. economy.
I’m beginning to understand that part of my mission here is to link what happens between the connection at El Paso-Juarez to what’s going on in Mexico and the U.S. more broadly, and it’s really profound. Twenty percent of all the trade between the two countries moves through El Paso—$80 billion dollars a year. And we’ve started to connect those numbers with the jobs and value of trade in the districts represented by the people who are on that committee. We literally went through and said, “Congressman [Steve] Daines in Montana, $80 million dollars in U.S.-Mexico trade originates in your district. That employs 22,000 Montanans. You need to invest in the border.”
So, we’ve been fortunate to have a very tight focus on what we think is important and what we think we can achieve.
TM: Today brought news that Sen. John McCain and other members of the gang of eight think they have more than 70 votes for the Senate immigration reform bill. What’s on your wish list for comprehensive immigration reform? And what do you see in the Senate version that you would like to change?
BO: Largely, I think the Senate bill is good. It addresses the path to citizenship, and I think it is fair in that it puts people who have been waiting in line ahead of those who are already here illegally. So, I wish both waiting periods could be shortened—the line