Q&A with Beto O’Rourke: America must ‘listen and respect border communities’

EDITOR’S NOTE: U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat from El Paso, hopes to unseat Republican Senator Ted Cruz in March. The Monitor does not endorse candidates, but O’Rourke asked for a sit down with our Editorial Board when he was in the Rio Grande Valley on Wednesday, a day after he challenged Cruz to several debates, including two in Spanish. Here are excerpts from our conversation. We also extend an invitation to Sen. Cruz and hope to meet with him prior to the election and to also print his thoughts.

Q: Should we do this discussion in Spanish?

A: Podemos hacerlos si! (Yes, we can do this.)

Q: Just kidding. Has Sen. Cruz responded to your request to debate in Spanish?

A: He responded to the press yesterday … that he did not want to debate in Spanish but he does want a debate. But he has not agreed to specific terms yet. We are glad if it’s public — even through the press — that the conversation has at least started. We have been reaching out to his campaign and sent a certified letter that we have tried every which way so we make sure that there is no doubt on the record that we are asking to do this. That we want to do this. That the people of Texas deserve this.

Q: So your Spanish is pretty good?

A: It’s OK. But maybe it’s a function of where I grew up or how I grew up in El Paso.

Q: You grew up in El Paso and have been traveling this week with Veronica Escobar, former El Paso County judge, who is running for your seat. How do you feel about her taking over your congressional seat?

A: It makes the case for term limits. Folks will argue you’ll lose institutional knowledge. You’ll lose seniority that you’ve accrued, but what you gain is a different perspective, life experiences, expertise to bring to bear on the opportunities and challenges of the country and she makes an exclamation point on that case by being the first, or likely the first depending on who gets elected in November, to be the first Latina elected to represent a congressional district in the state of Texas.

Q: That’s overdue.

A: It’s unbelievable except that it’s true. And she’s going to do a fantastic job, better than I’ve been able to do and we, in El Paso, will be the beneficiaries of that. And so I feel the same way about the Senate. If elected and then re-elected, will serve no more than two terms. Get out of the way if you believe in the 20 million of your fellow Texans someone is surely going to do just as good or better a job as you’ve been able to do.

Q: Do you think two terms is enough time for you to move up to leadership, if elected?

A: Absolutely. In El Paso the mayor can only serve eight years; the president of the United States can only serve eight years. There is nothing special about a member of Congress that should require them to serve more than eight or 10 or 12 years. I just think our democracy is somewhat dependent on being refreshed and renewed and reflecting what the country actually looks like and Texas better than any other state to make the point. We are the most diverse state in the country and our representation should reflect that diversity and if you have to hardwire that into our system with term limits then so be it because otherwise it’s incredibly difficult to take out an incumbent, almost prohibitively so. You may sacrifice something in seniority, perhaps in leadership, but I think we’ve been able to demonstrate in the last five years you can get something done no matter how senior or junior you are if you are willing to work with people from the other side of the aisle. If you are willing to put the country first.

Q: How do you accomplish anything with such division in Washington right now?

A: There is tribalism and unwillingness and that’s something that we, to some degree are at fault for, to see each other in some common way as Americans or Texans or humans before we see each other by party, and so willing too often to believe the worst in one another.

Q: Immigration is one of the biggest divisive issues and affects us, here on the border. You toured Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, which has been exempted from the border wall, but the rest of the Valley is not. Do you know exactly where the wall will go?

A: I don’t and I just met with (U.S. Border Patrol RGV Sector Chief Manuel) Padilla this morning and he doesn’t either, or if doesn’t he’s not saying. He knows the general alignment and he has shared that with, he has told me, the county judge of Starr and the mayor of Pharr. Eight miles will be in Starr County. As you know, in Hidalgo it will be along the levee wall where there is already right of way. And my request from him is “is there a way that we can do this that is sensitive to the community, that incorporates the community’s priorities?” One of the very encouraging things I heard from the head of Customs and Border Protection, Kevin McAleenan and from Carrie Huffman (of CBP) … was beyond the boots on the ground, beyond the technology, beyond the infrastructure and physical barriers is trust. And if we do not have trust with the community then none of that stuff matters. And I shared with him the trust that was diminished in El Paso when a woman was seeking a protective court order from an El Paso judge in the county courthouse, who happened to be undocumented, was arrested by two plain-clothes Border Patrol agents when she left the courthouse. Immediately people in the immigrant community feel less comfortable reporting crimes, or stepping forward. That’s my case for security. When I’m asked in D.C.: “You don’t want a wall then what does border security look like?” I tell them it looks like El Paso, Texas. It looks like the Valley. It’s important as often as I can I have a seat at the table with Padillo and McAleenan and with the people who are going to be making these decisions. And we didn’t come to any great agreement, I really made the case for full community participation and involvement for a conversation that happens not when you have decided exactly where the wall is going to go, but about how to do this in a way that is most respectful of the community. He mentioned to me he asked for 135 miles in his sector and was able to get 35; the president asked for 2,000 and was able to get 35. That doesn’t mean those 35 aren’t going to be a significant threat to the way of life in this region.

Q: You are on the House Armed Services Committee, so let’s talk border technology. Why do we pay so much — $400,000 per month to man each Aerostat, that is our Army surplus equipment and most of those doing it are military veterans who we trained? Drones cost $17 million and there are only nine on the border. A recent Cato Institute Study found drones to be not effective and only are credited with 1.2 percent of apprehensions. Why can’t we get better, affordable technology to make a virtual wall more viable?

A: Because we’ve allowed the rhetoric and our fear to dominate our common sense in any reason when it comes to the border. We are spending between $19.5 and $20 billion a year to secure the border, triple the number of agents we had 20 years ago, and if you measure it by apprehensions: lowest since 1971; measure it by in-bound Mexican national migration and who it is we’re are apprehending, and it’s little kids … So throw any amount of money, pay any price, bear any burden as long as you can secure that border.

If you have a Congress that is willing to hold the agencies responsible accountable for their performance, you’re going to get a much better product, but we’re desperate for transparency and accountability when it comes to DHS, the wall as just one example. You have to have leadership from the border to get better results.

Q: So we are blindly throwing money at this?

A: We’re scared of Mexicans and Mexico and connections with the rest of the world. And we are willing to make policy out of that fear. And there has never been a better time to be from the border. The country has never needed our leadership more than it does right now. We have got to be the answer to that.

I love living in El Paso. If I thought Mexicans were coming to get us or that we have a terrorist threat in Ciudad Juarez or that we needed more walls, I’d be the first to fight for that because my 11, nine and seven-year-old kids are going to the public schools that are a stone’s throw away from the border. Pancho Villa had a meeting with (Gen.) Hugh Scott in the living room of the house I now call home. It’s amazing. It’s the border.

These are the emotional stories we have to use to combat the stories the president is telling about MS-13 coming to rape your daughter or kill your kids or sell you drugs. That, for him and for so much of America today, is the border.

Q: So that plays in to the need for the National Guard here now?

A: Absolutely and the tragic outcomes that are certain to follow, much as they did in ’97 when a U.S. Marine shot a U.S. citizen, 18-year-old high school senior in the back in Redford, Texas, Esequiel Hernández Jr.

Q: Would you send the Guard back?

A: Absolutely. They are not trained for this work. If we weren’t in a dozen wars around the world right now — Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, Niger, — if we weren’t already spending $700 billion.

(U.S. Rep.) Filemon Vela makes a great point. He said look at the number of deaths from military aircraft collisions; last year from Navy collisions; look at the demand for readiness. It’s not like we don’t have our work cut out for us in the U.S. military right now. We do. So why are we sending these resources, these women and men, to the U.S./Mexico border?

Not to diminish the service of those Guardsmen and women, they’re just doing what this country asks them, as they will do every time, the culpa, the fault is on us, the government, for allowing this to happen.

Q: Your reaction to Attorney General Ken Paxton’s lawsuit against DACA this week?

A: If there’s ever been a time that our institutions will face their ultimate test it is this year, against the racism displayed by this president, the total disregard for our own self interests, from Ken Paxton. Whether it is ending arbitrarily the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or ensuring that we don’t ban people of one religion from this country, whether it’s making sure that this state, which has tried to gerrymander people based on race and ethnicity — the courts are there under vicious attack from the president. And the press. I’m really proud of this country right now.

Q: U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions backed off recently in allowing the Legal Orientation Program, to continue, a program that helps to inform immigrants of their rights, and which could help with the 600,000 backlogged immigration cases. That was a little give and take from this administration.

A: The best argument is not for the immigrant the best argument is for our system and rule of law because those immigrants who do get pro bono help or like from attorneys are far more likely to honor their court date and follow the law and that’s what we want.

Q: Our region is portrayed as dangerous, like a war zone. Is that fair?

A: As a country we’re willing to project our anxiety and our fears at the place where we meet the rest of the world and it happens to be where we are. It’s not a new thing. There is culpability on the border. I point the finger at myself. Why have we not been better at standing up for ourselves, not just in our own communities, but in D.C.? One of the reasons I decided to run (for Senate)was Donald Trump winning the presidency and this idea that we will build a wall or make people afraid of the border, of Mexico, of Mexican immigrants.

It’s important for me not just stopping the wall but providing alternatives, whether different security technology, whether having our immigration laws actually reflect our interest in labor demands, family reunification, or just that immigration is a really good problem for us to have.

Q: Will a wall violate our 1944 Water Treaty with Mexico?

A: One of my next phone calls will be to Ed Drusina, of the International Boundary and Water Commission, because if we are a rule of law people then to make sure that we honor that in addition to honoring our local stakeholders, like the mayor of Pharr.

Q: You are running a different campaign than most, taking no PAC money, but this trip you met with Alonso Cantu on his ranch. Have you changed your strategy following not such a stellar performance here in the primary elections?

A: Not in any conscious way. Those primary election numbers reflect a 254-county strategy. It would be one thing to spend all the time in Blue Texas, including the Valley, but we’ve also been to the most Republican counties because it’s important to know those people. I think of the Valley like El Paso, in the camp of those who have been taken for granted: You are reliably blue, we know which way you are going to vote. Focusing on both —those who have been taken for granted and those who have never been listened to or heard — that’s the only way to do this. A lot of people still don’t know who I am. Only by continuing to show up, going door to door, that’s the way. I want the people of the Valley to drive the way we campaign.

Q: A recent Quinnipac University poll found you just three percentage points behind Cruz.

A: It reflects that this is possible, which a lot of people would not allow themselves to believe until recently.

Q: You said it’s time for the border to stand up and three border counties recently did. Hidalgo, Cameron and El Paso counties last week filed suit against the Commerce Department to stop a citizenship question from being asked on the 2020 census.

A: I’m so proud of the border. We have always taken so much. I grew up on the border and it gets in your head and you kind of apologize. We are amazing and awesome. We are beautiful. We should be leading the country right now. I feel that in every one of these town halls: The border communities standing up for itself, taking the lead for the country. That’s cool. Never something I felt before and I feel it in a big way right now. Bravo.

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