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 for those who have been waiting for visas and gone through the normal process, which would then shorten the line for those already here. The [$2,000] fine is onerous, but I think it’s a political reality—it’s just necessary to have a penalty that’s tough, but I would argue that ultimately it’s fair. It addresses low wage, low skill and high wage, high skill labor demand. And I like that the stakeholders like labor and business were forced to hash out some things on their own and come back, which I think is important politically.
What I very clearly don’t like is the security trigger. The border is as secure as it’s ever been, we’re spending $18 billion, which is twice what we were spending in 2006, and we’ve more than doubled the size of the Border Patrol since 9/11. Right now there are record low northbound apprehensions, record high deportations, and we’re splitting up families. We’re got ten drones—they prefer we call them UAVs—flying over the border. I got scolded by a member from California because I called them drones. She said, “Those are not drones. I prefer you use the term Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.” And I thought, “If they were flying over your district in San Francisco, you would not like that.” And there’s $1.5 billion for more walls, there’s $3 billion for additional surveillance, and all the while the real need along the border is in our ports to facilitate the legitimate flow of people and goods. So I really dislike that.
But we’ve decided not to just criticize, that’s why we joined the markup process on the border security bill yesterday. It is clearly going to pass our committee—I would have been the only “no” vote if I had voted against it—and it’s clearly going to pass the House, and so we have instead tried to find ways to improve it and appeal to people on trade and on the legitimate flow of people and trying to measure wait times, which are not in any way authoritatively measured right now. So, we’re trying to work within the system and trying to remember that it’s really great that comprehensive immigration reform is likely to pass and we just want to make it better. Those are my initial impressions. It’s 844 pages long, so we’ve literally broken it up into chunks and different members of our team are all reading it, but given what we’ve read so far, those are the things we’ve seen that we like and don’t like.
TM: After the Boston bombings you said you hoped these events would not derail passage of immigration reform. There’s also never been evidence of a terrorist crossing into the United States across the southern border, and you’ve said the border is the most secure it has ever been. How can you combat the notion that the border is unsafe and that even more security is needed?
BO: It doesn’t help that our governor has talked about bombs in the streets of El Paso. Part of the job for me and others from El Paso who live along the border is to dispel the myths about how supposedly dangerous the border is. One of our favorite things to talk about is how, for the third year in a row, El Paso is the safest city in America. San Diego, another border city, is the second safest. I think Laredo is in the top 10.
The border is really as safe as it’s ever been, and it is helpful to have Border Patrol Chief Michael Fisher and Acting Deputy Commissioner Kevin K. McAleenan saying exactly those words. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has been saying “pass immigration reform first and watch the border become even safer,” which has kind been our mantra in El Paso. If we pass immigration reform it will become even more secure because you will no longer have these people living in the shadows who are crossing furtively because they want to work, they have lives and families here, and they still have ties to their countries of origin. This will clear that up and let us focus on the bad guys.
We need to be vigilant, but, as far as I know, we’ve never had a problem with terrorists crossing the southern border. Now, given what happened in Boston, you now have this really strong focus on terrorism. But before, when people would say negative things about Mexico they would say things in the vein of “they’re trying to give our kids drugs, they’re taking our jobs, they’re taking our benefits, etc. etc.” It was like Mexico was just this big scary threatening place. But on the border in El Paso we have a completely different, very positive story to tell so that’s hopefully some way that we can be helpful in responding to things like this.
El Paso now, post 9/11, is literally fenced off from Juarez. We would be one community—the street grids of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez intersect and feed into each other’s—but there’s fencing and concrete. If you can step back from it and realize that as Mexico comes up, as we stop seeing it as a threat, that whole border area could be so beautiful. It’s just tragic that you have $1.5 billion dollars being devoted to more walls that we’re going to be hopefully tearing down in the next ten years because we’ll realize that it’s one of the most foolish things we’ve ever spent money on in this country’s history. I hope. I hope.