In his first public appearance since losing the Texas Senate race to Ted Cruz earlier this month, Representative Beto O’Rourke on Monday harshly criticized the Trump administration’s border policies and sidestepped calls for him to run for president in 2020. Speaking at what he said was his 102nd El Paso town-hall meeting since going to Congress in 2013, O’Rourke sounded very much like someone who is not ready to leave the political stage.
“We can either give into the fear of walls and tear-gassing families with infant children in diapers, we can go back to a policy of taking kids from their parents when they come here . . . or we can live up to the best traditions, potential, promise and hope of who we are as Americans. That’s what’s in front of us right now,” O’Rourke said. He said there are “moments for which we are ashamed afterwards that we did not do the right thing.”
More than two hundred people attended the lunchtime town-hall meeting in downtown El Paso. It was generally more subdued than his campaign rallies, though he received repeated applause throughout the 75-minute event that featured numerous questions from constituents. O’Rourke was dressed as he was for many of his rallies, wearing an open-collared white shirt and jeans. As with his political rallies, he sprinkled in some occasional coarse language, urging people not to give into “the paranoia and the hype and the fear and that bullshit that characterizes so much of the national conversation” about the border and immigration.
Earlier Monday, President Trump tweeted a threat to close the border if Mexico didn’t deport the Central Americans now waiting to apply for asylum in the United States. “I think this is a real reckless threat and it is just going to be very harmful to the United States and already is harmful to our competitiveness, to communities like El Paso. I hope that that wiser and cooler heads are going to prevail but there’s no telling with this president,” O’Rourke said at a brief news conference after the town-hall meeting.
Mexico should move the flag waving Migrants, many of whom are stone cold criminals, back to their countries. Do it by plane, do it by bus, do it anyway you want, but they are NOT coming into the U.S.A. We will close the Border permanently if need be. Congress, fund the WALL!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 26, 2018
An hour before the gathering, O’Rourke sent a statement to his campaign email list in which he sounded very much like someone who wanted to continue to be a voice in the national political conversation. He criticized the Trump administration’s actions on the border and called for changes that would process asylum seekers more quickly and focus on root causes of migration in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
“It should tell us something about her home country that a mother is willing to travel 2,000 miles with her 4-month-old son to come here. Should tell us something about our country that we only respond to this desperate need once she is at our border. So far, in this administration, that response has included taking kids from their parents, locking them up in cages, and now tear gassing them at the border,” O’Rourke wrote.
He then laid out a plan for addressing the current surge of Central American migrants, mostly families, now coming to the border. Although the media focus in recent weeks has been on the caravan heading to the San Diego–Tijuana border, government statistics show that more than half of the migrant family apprehensions in recent months have taken place in the Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley and El Paso sectors in Texas.
“Let’s do this the right way and follow our own laws. Allow asylum seekers to petition for asylum at our ports of entry. They must do so peacefully and follow our laws; but we must also ensure the capacity to effectively and timely process those claims (right now 5,000 waiting in Tijuana and only 40 to 100 are processed a day) . . . Longer term: work with the people of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to address underlying conditions that are causing them to flee in the first place. That means addressing effects of our failed past involvement in those countries (in their civil wars, drug trade and drug wars) and the institutional failings in those countries (rule of law),” the El Paso congressman wrote.
O’Rourke touched on a variety of issues during his town hall meeting, including veterans’ affairs, U.S. military involvement around the globe and the federal deficit and debt. Two attendees asked him to run for president in 2020, including Ron Stallworth, an El Paso author whose book Black Klansman became the basis for this summer’s movie by director Spike Lee. But O’Rourke ignored or gently pushed aside questions about his political future, saying he and his wife Amy wouldn’t make a decision until after his congressional term ends January 3.
In the news conference after his town-hall meeting, O’Rourke acknowledged that he is now considering a run for president, something he ruled out multiple times during his Senate race against Cruz. “Running for Senate, I was 100 percent focused on our campaign, winning that race and then serving the next six years in the United States Senate. That was 100 percent of our focus. Now that that is no longer possible, you know, we’re thinking through a number of things,” he said.
O’Rourke said he and his wife, Amy, are considering a number of things as they decide their next steps. “Amy and I have talked a little bit about next steps and the conversation has started with family and it really has not gotten past that. What’s going to be best for our family? You know we really have not effectively, functionally seen each other and been a family for the better part of two years. Our kids are 12, 10 and 8 now, and whatever we do, we want to be together. And so, you know, being in El Paso makes just a ton of sense to us,” he said. “I’m also obviously, you know, really interested in the direction that this country takes. I want to be as effective as I can making sure that it goes in a positive direction and contributing in whatever way that I can. What form that takes, whether it involves running for office again, whether there’s something that I can do as a just a citizen.”