Beto O’Rourke remains a contender among Democrats nationwide and will be part of the political discussion looking toward the 2020 election. But the fame the El Pasoan achieved in this year’s near miss for a seat in the U.S. Senate overshadows a significant factor: he’s leaving the U.S. House of Representatives when the Democratically controlled Congress convenes on January 3. Texas Monthly caught up with O’Rourke a day after he toured Tornillo’s tent city, outside of El Paso, which houses unaccompanied minors seeking political asylum in the United States. A pensive, occasionally frustrated sounding O’Rourke reflected on the theme of life on the border that marked his tenure in Congress.
Texas Monthly: Your six years in the House is winding down and in the last couple of days you visited a shelter for asylum seekers in Ciudad Juárez, you went to the Tornillo tent facility for migrant children for the fourth time this year. What did those visits mean for you—especially at this time of year?
Beto O’Rourke: It’s important for me to remind myself about what’s going on in our community—and in a binational community with Juarez—that I think in many ways defines the border. And it’s very important for me to to do my best to share that with my colleagues and other people who are part of this discussion and debate, especially going into a potential government shutdown over a wall. And it also happens to be a day after we learned about a 7-year old girl who died in CBP (Customs and Border Protection) custody. It’s connected to hundreds of people who lose their lives every year, including children trying to cross into the United States. All of that is part of the discussion—not just about the $25 billion cost for the wall, or the 2,000 miles of a border that would be walled off, or the private property that would be taken, or the debate about whether the wall has any material effect on security. You’re literally talking about people’s lives and some immense suffering that that causes. So I think getting to go to Casa del Migrante was important just to meet the people that we’re talking about. And likewise to see the children at Tornillo yesterday. That’s part of the story that needs to be told when we’re having these conversations.
TM: We’re now focused on President Donald Trump’s border policies. But in 2014, you toured a holding facility for migrant children in Artesia, New Mexico, and you were deeply disturbed by what you saw. That was under the Obama administration. Talk a little bit about that experience in 2014 and about how you would rate the Obama administration’s record on the border.
BO: I visited Artesia a couple times. It was no accident that Central American families were sent to Artesia, which is three hours from El Paso, which itself is already two flights from almost anywhere in the U.S. So those young mothers and their young children were purposefully isolated and their bond was set unreasonably high though they posed no threat to anyone. And the anxiety that I saw on their faces, their kids who stopped eating, the uncertainty that they faced. They were, in the infamous words of Mitt Romney, self-deporting. They just couldn’t take it anymore. It effectively was a deportation machine set up under the Obama administration and ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) officials that we spoke to in Artesia said that the word from the administration was that they were supposed to create an experience to send a message back to Central America not to make the journey—that it was going to suck so much that you shouldn’t start the journey. So I think that’s also important to keep in mind: this is not a function of the Trump administration or of one person’s policies. It’s almost a kind of natural progression or logical conclusion of the path that we’ve been on. And I believe President Obama, his administration deported more people from this country than any administration before. A lot of families were broken up during that time. I think part of that reason for deporting so many was to buy some political will to move forward on immigration reform, which of course didn’t happen. So that’s a lesson for us going forward: that you’ll never satisfy the demands for border security. It’s just an ever-moving goalpost. It costs a lot of suffering, a lot of harm and if you begin with the premise that we’re going to do secure the border before we do anything else you’ll never get to anything else. And you’ll hurt a lot of people in the process.
TM: This week the border is front and center again with President Trump threatening a partial government shutdown if he doesn’t get $5 billion for his border wall. Your successor in the House, Veronica Escobar, has said that Democrats allow Republicans to set the terms of the debate over border security to the detriment of communities like El Paso. Do you agree with that?
BO: I do and I’ve been very disappointed in Democrats who can be forgiven because they don’t perhaps understand the border, they haven’t lived here or maybe not visited or ever been to the border. So you end up conceding the point before you’ve even begun. In the 2014 immigration reform measure that passed the Senate, it was going to double the size of Border Patrol from 20,000 agents to 40,000 agents; it was going to further militarize the border; it was going to include physical barriers and walls. And I remember asking the Democratic Senate leadership just what they were thinking. And it was clear in their answer that they just didn’t understand the border. And there was President Obama and other prominent Democrats saying, ‘first we’re going to secure the border.’ What is a secure border if you don’t define it upfront? You’ll never get there. Or you have Senator Obama and Senator (Hillary) Clinton voting for the 2006 Secure Fence Act, again not out of malice, just out of ignorance. They didn’t understand what they were doing. And so if you don’t have a party that will represent and stand for the six million of us who live on the U.S. side of the U.S.-Mexico border and our communities, then no one’s going to be that advocate so I think with Veronica and people like Congressman (Filemon) Vela and even (Congressman) Will Hurd—so something that crosses party lines but is very much rooted in representation from the border. Perhaps there’s a coalition necessary to have policies reflect the reality on the ground and reflect our lives and reflect our values. Your first question about Artesia under the Obama administration and this question really help make the point: Let’s not lay this at the feet of the Republican party or President Trump or any one person. This is all of us. This week will be very telling in terms of just how much progress we’ve made on this and whether we’re going to get policies that effectively represent the interests of the border.
TM: One of the reasons you ran for the House in 2012 was to help change the perception of the U.S.-Mexico border. How successful have you been in that mission?
BO: Oh I don’t know. In some ways not very successful because in 2016 you had someone elected in large part because he vowed to build a 2,000 mile wall, to have Mexico pay for it, to keep out rapists and criminals who he said were coming into our country though the border is as secure as it’s ever been, though El Paso is one of, if not the, safest cities in the U.S., and though immigrants commit violent crimes at a lower rate than do people born in the United States. As hard as we were trying, we obviously didn’t do a good enough job communicating reality and the facts. And it wasn’t for lack of trying. We led bipartisan delegations to the border. I went to other communities to share how their economic interest was tied to ours. I remember making a trip to Georgia, which has a strong bilateral trade relationship with Mexico, to say your jobs in Atlanta are directly connected to the ports of entry and the vitality of the U.S.-Mexico border. But I was also working against 40 or 50 years of vilification and demonizing the border and the people of the border and Mexicans and so it took us a while to get to this point politically and it will take us a while to get out. But as you saw in the Senate campaign, we made El Paso’s story and the story of the border and the people of the border front and center in the campaign—not defensively but aspirational. We’re doing amazing things. It’s when we’re connected to the rest of the world and we honor where we all come from and the fact that we’re a country of immigrants, of refugees, and asylum seekers. There’s still a lot of work to do and I’m really excited that Veronica will succeed me because there’s no one who is going to be a stronger advocate for the border and there’s no one who’s better able to tell our story than Veronica, the story of her own family and the story of all of our families.
TM: As a nation, how do we expand that conversation about the border to something beyond just security efforts? How do we talk more about the economic, cultural, and human opportunities in border communities?
BO: I’ll use the example of there being 1.6 million apprehensions on the U.S.-Mexico border in 2000. There were like 330,000 apprehensions last year. So by that measure you know we’re far safer. Then there’s $19.5 billion that we’re spending on border security, which is probably three times what we were spending back then. There’s 20,000 Border Patrol agents, which is twice the number of agents, there’s the aerostat blimps, the drones and all the technology we’re employing. That though is not compelling. It just doesn’t register with people. What I’ve seen from Trump has been very effective in telling an emotional story: the rapists, the criminals, the MS-13, the gangs, the killers, the murders, your daughter. And so I think we have to be thoughtful about the emotional stories that we tell that, unlike the president’s, are rooted in facts and truth and our real experience. So I tell the story of Marcelino Serna, an undocumented immigrant who is the most highly decorated service member from the state of Texas in all of World War I. Or the story of Alonso Guillen from Lufkin, Texas who died trying to save people during Harvey in the floods of Houston. He was a Dreamer not a citizen and could have been deported any time, but he risked and lost his life for others. All these are amazing stories that connect to who we are as Americans but also are rooted in the border and in immigrant communities and families. So we’ve got to do a better job of telling our story because no one will tell it for us—and that’s been something that I’ve learned over the past six years. The facts and the numbers, while important as a part of the conversation, will not connect you with people as strongly as a story or someone’s human experience. And so that’s part of how we effectively make policy that represents our interests.
TM: You’re still deciding what comes next for you, whether it’s running for president or for Senate again or finding another role for yourself on the national stage. What role will the border play in whatever you do next?
BO: It’s central to who I am, it’s where I’m from, where my parents are from, where we’re raising our kids. It’s a big reason why I ever wanted to serve in office. And whether publicly or as a private citizen it’s going to be a key part of anything I do going forward. I’m so proud of EI Paso and the border. I feel compelled to share our story because we saw the 2016 election and how badly warped so much of the country’s perception of the border is, so I feel really responsible. One way or another it is just part of who I am and will be part of anything that I do. As you know Susie (Byrd) and I wrote a book about the drug war. But really we wanted to tell the border story, how policies dreamed of in Washington D.C., are disproportionately borne by the people of the border who are on the frontlines, in that case the drug war, but substitute U.S.-Mexico trade, bilateral relations, border security. We live it, we understand it, we know it better than anyone and so we really should be leading on it and that was the intent behind writing that book because I remember we were complaining about it and someone said well if you, in fact, understand this better then why don’t you educate the rest of us? We haven’t made a decision about what we’re going to do next and won’t until probably well into the new year. But the border will be central to that.
This interview was edited for clarity.