Congressman Beto O’Rourke has mixed feelings.
The one-term Democrat from El Paso came to Congress in large part to work on immigration reform. Since being here, he has seen the Senate pass a bill that never even came up for a vote in the House. He’s seen piecemeal legislation from his colleagues in the lower chamber sputter and die. And Thursday night he got to hear the president of the United States grabbing the reins and announcing an executive action that would shield about 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation.
“As a member of Congress, it’s terrible,” O’Rourke said in an interview at his Capitol Hill office the day before the announcement. “I support his effort to bring some level of justice, but I strongly dislike adding to the precedent of presidents bypassing Congress to achieve something they think is important to national interest. The motive is noble, but the means are really hard to stomach.”
It’s easy to feel like a glorified understudy as a member of Congress these days: You can learn your lines, but you might never get the chance to deploy them. Which is a bummer if you’re O’Rourke; his world is centered on the U.S.-Mexico border.
There’s even a map in his Capitol Hill office entrance saying as much. On the map, drawn in 1925, El Paso sits right in the middle, emanating concentric circles that cover the American West and parts of Mexico.
“El Paso really was once the epicenter of the Southwest,” O’Rourke said, sitting at his conference room table. He is 42, with an angular face and just a hint of gray streaking through his mop of hair. “Conrad Hilton [Sr.] built his first high-rise there.” After Conrad “Nicky” Hilton Jr. married a young Elizabeth Taylor, the couple spent time in El Paso after their European honeymoon.
Needless to say, things have changed for the border town.
“You don’t have world-class architects and thinkers and artists and writers and entrepreneurs to the same degree,” he said. “The El Paso I grew up in was a very mediocre town that was comfortable with its mediocrity.”
Growing up there in the ’70s and ’80s, O’Rourke wanted nothing more than to get out. He and his friend Cedric Bixler-Zavala — later the vocalist for At the Drive-In and the Mars Volta — formed a band called Foss. O’Rourke played guitar, sang backup and toured the country. He left the band, graduated from Columbia University and worked for a few years for Internet start-ups in New York.
With a little time and distance, El Paso suddenly didn’t feel so mediocre. It felt like a place with all the potential in the world.
“There’s something very, very special about a place that’s the largest binational city in the world,” O’Rourke said. It’s a place where the culture and music and food of two countries begin to blend together. He may be of Irish descent, but O’Rourke is a fourth-generation El Paso native, and he is passionate about the model his city can present to the rest of the country. It’s no surprise to him, for example, that El Paso is perennially ranked as one of the safest cities in the country.
“It’s because of the immigrants, not in spite of them,” he said.
These are the types of stories he wanted to highlight when he ran for Congress in 2012. Which is why he can’t help but get angry with parts of the debate over immigration.
“I’m so disappointed when I hear the president say that if we want to move forward with immigration we have to secure our border first,” he said. “If there’s any correlation, it’s that the more immigrants you have the safer you are.”
The day after Obama’s announcement O’Rourke said that he thought the president’s actions were warranted.
“While I believe that these problems should be corrected legislatively, and while I have worked to move Congress to enact a bipartisan solution to do that, it’s clear that after years of congressional inaction the only option for the time being is executive action by the president,” he said. But that doesn’t mean that his concerns had vanished.
Working to better “secure our border” was indeed part of Obama’s pitch in his executive action announcement Thursday night, and O’Rourke knows that this “fear-mongering” rhetoric has consequences. Already there are people who wait for hours on the bridge between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez in Mexico. There are 23 million bridge crossings a year, many of which are for Mexican citizens to come into the United States to shop. O’Rourke worries that more security could add to the wait time.
“I’ve seen people waiting outside for two or three hours when it’s 27 degrees and sleeting,” he says. “How elastic is that? At what point are people going to say, ‘F--- it, I’m going to raise chickens instead of buying our eggs.’ First of all, they should be treated more humanely, but you can also make the selfish economic interest here.”
He noted that he has a congressional town hall coming up this weekend, and that he expected this to be the primary point of conversation.
“There is a very, very active immigration advocacy group here who have been forceful about the militarization of the border and I’m sure they will have concerns,” he said.
And it’s not just about waiting in line to cross a bridge. Sometimes, the consequences of increased border security can be deadly.
On May 20, 1997, Esequiel Hernández was herding goats about a mile north of the Mexican border in Texas when a U.S. Marine on drug patrol shot him dead. Hernández was an American high school student, mistaken for a drug smuggler.
“I don’t know if the president’s team knows who he is, but everyone on the border does,” O’Rourke said, his omnipresent smile fading for a split second. “This is what happens when you militarize the border. This is what happens when for political purposes you respond to a concern that may or may not have any substance to it.”