This Indie Rocker-Turned-Congressman Is Ready to Make His Name on Immigration Reform

Ben Terris
National Journal

With a district that essentially includes both Texas and Mexico, there aren't a lot of lawmakers more interested in immigration reform than freshman Rep. Beto O'Rourke, a Democrat. The city of El Paso (in his district) and Ciudad Juarez (in Mexico) are so inextricably linked that O'Rourke says he basically sees them both as one city. Thousands of Ciudad Juarez citizens cross the border each day to work, shop, or go to school. The University of Texas (El Paso) even allows Juarez residents to pay in-state tuition to attend.

"The mayor of Juarez lived in El Paso. Not only did he not live in his own city, he didn't live in his own country."

A former indie-rock frontman, city council member, and the author of the book Dealing Death and Drugs: The Big Business of Dope in the U.S. and Mexico, O'Rourke is still something of an unknown in Congress. (At a recent practice for the Democratic baseball team, he was mistaken by one coach for a staff member from Sen. Frank Lautenberg's office.) But with immigration legislation beginning its slog through Congress, O'Rourke aims to take on a bigger profile.

Just last week he dropped a bill helping keep immigrant foster children from being deported back to their countries of origin after becoming too old for foster care. Here's why he says such a bill is necessary: Say an immigrant family moves illegally to the United States and starts abusing their child. The state has an interest in keeping that child safe, and protective services could place him or her in foster care. Now if the system worked perfectly, this child would grow up and be helped to obtain Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, and be set on a pathway to citizenship. But since there is no law in place forcing the foster care system to assist these kids through the process, some fall through the cracks.

"Once that happens, far too many of them end up going back to their country of origin, where they may not know the language or the customs, and in this case they may have to confront their abuser or the person who neglected or abused them in the first place," O'Rourke says.

The congressman sat down in his office with National Journal for an interview. An edited transcript of that conversation follows.

NJ What do you think about the Senate immigration bill?

O'Rourke I'm generally very happy that it's moving forward in bipartisan fashion. I'm also happy that there's a path to citizenship. It is a very tough pathway: 13 years and $2,000 in fines. But that's the balance that needed to be struck to get the bipartisan support. The really tough part for us to swallow has been the border-security and trigger component—that the border needs to be secured before you can move on with actual reform and a path to citizenship. The border is more secure than it's ever been.

NJ What would increased border security mean for El Paso and for Ciudad Juarez?

O'Rourke We already have people waiting on bridges for two or three hours a day just for the privilege of spending their hard-earned money in South El Paso shops. On the Homeland Security Committee, one congressman proposed 100 percent border control. One hundred percent border control, keeping out all illegal immigrants and keeping out all drugs. It's an admirable goal—we all want that. But as an official goal, that kid who is waiting on the bridge for eigght hours would end up [waiting] 80 hours. If you had to completely eliminate every potential threat, it would wreck the economy of the U.S. and Mexico, not to mention El Paso.

NJ You've said that you want to take an active role in the immigration debate. What can you bring to the conversation?

O'Rourke Well, El Paso in many ways is the Ellis Island for Mexico and much of Latin America. We have a large immigrant population, and we take pains to talk about its positive impact. We are the safest city in the United States, and we know that to be in large part due to the immigration population, not in spite of it. I sit on Homeland Security and I see many other members who don't live on the border portraying it as a threat and a source of anxiety. What I can teach them is that the border is a very positive place.

NJ You talk about how safe El Paso is, and yet right across the border is one of the most dangerous cities in the world. How do you contend with anti-immigration advocates who point to the violence of Juarez as proof that we need to better secure our borders?

O'Rourke Those arguments can be emotional and sensational. The best thing to do is stick with the facts. We've been among the top three safest cities for at least the last 10 years running. And it's not just us, it's the whole border. It's from San Diego to Brownsville. Wanting to build a wall is an emotional response, and it makes people feel better. But it does nothing to limit the flow of migrants or drugs, or do anything to fix the underlying problems.

NJ You've written about and talked a lot about the drug war; what made you interested in this topic to begin with?

O'Rourke I became interested after seeing what happened in Juarez. In 2007, there were 300 murders in Juarez. The next year it spiked to a high of 1,600 plus, then 2,600, then the next year it went higher. And these people weren't just murdered but tortured, beheaded. The bodies were placed for public display and consumption with messages carved into their bodies. It was terrorism. Juarez had become a failed city. The mayor of Juarez lived in El Paso. Not only did he not live in his own city, he didn't live in his own country. You had all these kids out of school who didn't want to work because they saw their mothers toiling in jobs for hardly any cash. So when someone offers them $100 to stand on a corner and sell drugs, they do it. And it's partially on us. It's on this side of the border where people are consuming and demanding these drugs. producing the pull to bring these drugs over.

NJ So why then wasn't your reaction that we needed to double down, fight even harder to win this so-called war on drugs?

O'Rourke Well, it's a question I studied. Could we redouble our efforts? Could we be Saudi Arabia and just cut your hand off? Would that do anything? But it's clear from the history of 40 years and trillion dollars we've spent on the war on drugs that no matter how much money, no matter what kind of weaponry we put in the field, we were not moving the dial. We were just incarcerating a greater number of citizens than any other country, the vast majority of them black or Latino. The availability of marijuana in high school and middle school is the same as when it started in 1971, when we started. And its only like 300 to 500 times more potent than it was back then. We need a different approach.

NJ Which is why you think there should be an end to the prohibition of marijuana?

O'Rourke To take John Kerry's question about Vietnam: Who is the last kid in Juarez who needs to die trying to bring marijuana over to the United States?

BONUS FOR GETTING THIS FAR: A video of O'Rourke's old band Foss: