On July 8, Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump, who had rocketed to the top of national polls by decrying the dangerous criminality of immigrants crossing into America from Mexico, was asked by MSNBC to respond to the fact that the border town of El Paso, Texas, is the safest big city in the United States. "OK, OK," the reality TV star interrupted, sneering. "Don't try and convince me there is no crime, that it's wonderful…It's a disgrace. Don't tell me about safety. Are you trying to justify safety on the border? I don't think so."
The next day, the congressional representative from El Paso, Democrat Beto O'Rourke, invited Trump to join him the following month on a 10k run straddling the U.S.-Mexico border—the first such binational race between the border neighbors in 15 years. "El Paso is the safest city in the country in large part BECAUSE of (not in spite of) the large number of immigrants who call our city home," Rep. O'Rourke wrote on his Facebook page. To drive home the point on race day, the young congressman wore a Trump-style baseball cap with the inscription "The Border Makes America Great."
Beto O'Rourke has one of the more unusual resumes in Congress. Like many Tea Party Republicans, but precious few of his fellow Democrats, O'Rourke came to the House of Representatives by successfully challenging a sitting incumbent, Rep. Silvestre Reyes, in 2012. More unusual still was the main issue separating the two. O'Rourke, a former El Paso city councilman, favored the legalization of marijuana; Reyes, a longtime Border Patrol agent, attacked O'Rourke for sponsoring a 2009 El Paso City Council resolution urging the federal government to have "an open and honest debate" about ending prohibition. The congressman also supports term limits, and he wants to roll back what he regards as questionably constitutional powers granted to law enforcement.
A youthful 42, O'Rourke is a former Brooklynite, has played in rock bands, and is an avid outdoorsman. Editor in Chief Matt Welch spoke to the congressman by phone in mid-September.
reason: I'm curious to know whether Donald Trump ever took you up on your offer to see what the border looks like down El Paso way?
Beto O'Rourke: No, he didn't. We'd invited him to do this run that we helped put together with the El Paso Community Foundation. It was a 10k that started in El Paso and finished at the International Port of Entry coming back in from Juarez. So half in El Paso, half in Juarez. If he could see it for himself and, you know, meet the people, the community, it's not as scary as he makes it out to be.
I think he knows that, but it also is something that plays very well with people who don't know the border, and aren't familiar with it, and maybe are scared of Mexicans from Mexico and just people who are a little different than what they think the average American is. But all the stuff that he's saying in some ways is an opportunity for people to talk about stuff that should be talked about. So to that end, I think he's helpful.
reason: What does the Republican field, including Trump, get wrong the most when they talk about immigration and the border?
O'Rourke: I would say Republicans certainly, but even Democrats to a large extent, don't understand the relative security of the border today. Even the president when he was outlining his immigration priorities [said], "Point number one: We will secure the border."
You're really working against the law of diminishing returns at this point. You're spending $18 billion per year. You have record low numbers of northbound apprehensions. The U.S. cities that sit on the border—and none is closer to its Mexican counterpart than El Paso is to Juarez—are among the safest cities in America. El Paso's the safest, but it's not an outlier, because San Diego's very safe. Laredo's safe relative to the average American city.
You've more than doubled the size of the Border Patrol in the last 10 years. I don't know that you're going to get much more security for the next couple billion dollars you spend, which is what it would take to complete the wall or to do some of the things that other members of Congress are talking about. Forty billion dollars just to double the size of the Border Patrol again, [which] the Senate had in their immigration bill.
Across the board for those people in positions the public trusts—whether it's the president, whether they're Democrats or Republicans—[those] who don't live on the border have a very skewed perspective of it. And it's dangerous for the United States on a number of different levels.
One, it's just a really bad way to spend money on a problem that you don't have. Two, there are really legitimate, serious threats to this country and we should be focused on those. Those are our airports; those are homegrown terrorists—the South Carolina shooting's an example of that. People who are radicalized or become radicalized by following certain teachers on the Internet are a serious threat. We have plenty of threats that we could focus limited resources on. Throwing more money at the border is just not wise.
reason: I can hear a restrictionist or a secure-the-border-first type retorting, "Well yeah, El Paso and San Diego are safe now because we built big fences there. So why shouldn't we finish the job, you weak-kneed liberal?"
O'Rourke: There have been some pretty strong studies that correlate the size of an American city's immigrant community and its safety relative to the average American community.
There's something to the argument that conservatives might make. We do have a significant federal law enforcement presence. It's the FBI, DEA, Border Patrol—I think one of the largest Border Patrol sectors in the country—and then obviously great sheriffs and local city police. But I really do think it's connected as well to these people who have come to the United States to get ahead and do better for their kids. There are some exceptions for sure, but they're almost single-mindedly focused on getting ahead and adapting to the norms in the communities that they're in now, and making sure their kids get ahead as well.
Sometimes we are a little egotistical in this country in thinking that everyone wants to be an American and that there isn't really a sacrifice on someone's part to leave their home country, to leave their families, and to leave their community, their language, the life they know. That's an incredibly traumatic journey for a lot of people, and they make it in part to get away from tough conditions, but also to get ahead. And I love that—that is something that this country has really thrived on, and it's something that we continue to need: the talents and the drive, and these people who are strivers and seekers and dreamers.
El Paso, for me, is the case in point. Of course lots of these families then go deeper into the interior of the U.S. and make great lives and careers there, but a lot of them are in El Paso, and that's part of our success and part of the reason for our safety.
reason: You've criticized the Border Patrol in the past on accountability measures. What has the growth of the Border Patrol since the mid-'90s actually changed at the border?
O'Rourke: In the El Paso sector, which I think is, in terms of manpower if not size, the largest Border Patrol sector, last year there were four and a half apprehensions for the entire year on average per agent.
O'Rourke: This goes back to the diminishing returns that we were talking about. And nationally it may be like three, maybe three and a half times that; I don't think it's above 15 nationally. That's for the whole year. When I'm talking about this with people they say, "You mean a month? A week?" No, it's for the whole year.
Agents themselves—and I've heard this from the National Border Patrol Council, which is their union—have told me that they have real concerns about how quickly new agents were brought on post-9/11. They themselves have concerns about vetting and training and oversight. [The Department of Homeland Security] is—even for the federal government—remarkably dark and opaque in terms of being able to get access to data and information, and being able to hold people accountable for the jobs that they do. That really hurts Border Patrol agents because the vast majority of them do excellent work in really tough conditions.
To that conservative or restrictionist point, they are part of the reason—not the whole reason, but part of the reason—that you've seen drops in apprehensions, and that communities along the border are safe. They really do help keep us safe. But when they don't, when they're not held accountable and the bad actors are not held accountable, then that agency at times can become tainted by the insinuations or the allegations that are raised over the cases that are ongoing or pending.
Over the last year there was a rash of media stories about Border Patrol use-of-force issues. If they had just come absolutely clean with all data—their policies, reports they had commissioned that they didn't release—I think it would have been much better for the organization. And that's really the way we should be doing business in this country, especially when you have an agency that has almost extraconstitutional powers. Their ability to stop, search, and seize is extraordinary at the border, when you first enter the United States physically. But as you probably know, that authority then extends many, many miles into the interior. And there are these extreme cases of U.S. citizens who are detained at the border and then carried by Customs and Border Protection [CBP]—in one case the year before last-to a hospital in El Paso where they're handcuffed to a hospital bed, forcibly vaginally and anally searched for drugs that are never found (and even if they were found it would be wrong), and then sent the bill from the hospital for the procedures.
If you're going to have that kind of power, you should also have some really significant oversight and accountability mechanisms built into that. Steve Pearce, a Republican from southern New Mexico, and I wrote a bill last Congress to provide some of this oversight and accountability and training, and we're reintroducing it this Congress. I'm under no illusion [about its prospects], because of everyone's focus on secure-the-border-first. But I do know that introducing a bill is also a good way to introduce some ideas, and there may be pieces of the bill that make their way into reauthorizations for CBP.
Everyone up here [in Congress] swears by the Constitution. Well, you really have some constitutional issues that can be addressed from this bill.
reason: You are a rare Democrat who came into office by challenging a fellow Democrat in the primary. You ran, in part, on your belief that the drug war, the war on pot especially, is wrong. How did you make that unlikely recipe for success work?
O'Rourke: It really started with El Paso's connection to Ciudad Juarez, which is physical, emotional, familial, economic. We're really a conjoined entity, two halves of one larger binational community [with] 3 million people, 30 million crossings last year between the two communities, tremendous volume of trade. In other words, very, very interdependent. Very connected.
In 2008, and then certainly in 2009, there was a sharp increase in violence and murders, and then the brutalities of the violence and murders that we were seeing in Juarez. Decapitations, basically narcoterrorism, and just complete impunity for any crime you can think of, from robbery to kidnappings to these really gruesome murders.
I have to admit that I had never really thought about the drug war or U.S. drug policy and how it affects other parts of the world or our sister city in Juarez, but it became very clear that the violence was connected to two things that anyone could figure out at first glance. One is the demand in the United States that makes Juarez such a valuable location for the cartels, and controlling that plaza to cross drugs into the U.S. to make their way into the markets deeper into the interior. And then this apparent turf battle between the Sinaloa cartel and the Juarez cartel. And U.S. prohibitionary policies that created such a premium for these drugs, because of the risk involved, that you literally had kids—little kids, 12-year-olds, 13-year-olds—who were willing to kill or die to bring those drugs over, or facilitate it, or help maintain control of that crossing in Juarez.
So Juarez had gone from under 300 murders, to over 1,600, to 3,000 murders a year, to the point it became the murder capital of the world, the deadliest place anywhere in the world, bar none. That got me thinking about this.
The City Council at the time, we ended up passing a resolution in 2009 that seems very tame today in 2015, [saying] we should have a serious discussion or a debate on these prohibitionary policies. And the council passed it unanimously. The mayor vetoed the resolution, and it got a lot of attention because of what was happening in Juarez. Maybe just that premise of "let's just talk about our drug laws" was something that others were thinking about.
And Congressman Reyes, whom I challenged in 2012, spent a lot of money running ads in El Paso saying, "Hey, remember, Beto's the guy who wanted to legalize drugs." After [the City Council] asked for that debate and discussion, I continued to learn more on the issue, and I realized this isn't really just bad for Juarez. It's bad for our country, it's bad for our prison system, it's bad for so many things, and I can't believe I never really thought about or looked at this issue. And so I was publicly in favor of ending the prohibition on marijuana, and regulating and controlling its sale. He was trying these ads that "Beto wants to legalize drugs," and it was cute 4- and 5-year-olds on TV saying, "Say no to drugs. Say no to Beto."
Long story short, we won the election with that being perhaps the primary issue that Congressman Reyes tried to use against us. And what I found, when I was going door to door, was certainly that I would meet voters who agreed with me. What proved decisive was that a number of voters said, "I don't know that I agree with you on this whole marijuana deal or legalizing drugs," as they might say, "but I really respect you for at least talking about it, thinking it through, and what is happening right now is not working, so at least you're offering an alternative."
The takeaway for me is that if you are thoughtful about something and you're trying to do right by the community you represent, even if you arrive at a conclusion that's not the most popular one, it's not necessarily politically suicidal. In fact, there's some reward.
We now know the majority of Americans think this makes a lot of sense. So we may have been inadvertently on that wave of cresting public opinion.
reason: After seeing how things are and what your colleagues are like in Washington, do you think we [might] be at a political tipping point where two years from now it's just an overwhelmingly normal position to want to end the drug war, and we'll start to see this thing getting dismantled? Could it be similar to what happened with gay marriage, where Joe Biden's trial balloon triggered a new openness on the issue from Democrats? Or are the structures different and deeper and more difficult?
O'Rourke: I think the answer is yes.
It's one of these issues where the people are way ahead of their representatives. It's just been so hardwired into politicians for so long that you can't touch this one, and so it's almost like this phantom restriction that's no longer there, as measured in public opinion or election outcomes.
If one of the presidential candidates—really no one better than Donald Trump to introduce an idea like this, because no one is talking about anything else—but if any of the candidates were to introduce this, it would make news. But I don't think people would get too excited one way or the other about it. The same way if a candidate today were to say I do or don't support gay marriage. America's there, and everyone in D.C. is kind of catching up.
I wonder, though, what the trigger's going to be. I wonder who that person is, or what that event is in the U.S. that finally allows this much-needed change to take place. Maybe it's a presidential candidate or maybe it's this new administration starting in January 2017 that's the political opening to do the right thing. But I do think it happens sooner than later, very possibly in the next five years.