“Rep. Beto O’Rourke could mean blue wave hits deep red Texas in Senate race,” ran a CBS News headline this week. “Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke out-fundraises opponent Ted Cruz,” enthused Salon. Recent profiles of the 45-year-old former punk rocker have appeared the past few weeks in The New York Times, The Ringer, and CNN.
It’s a long way from even seven years ago, when O’Rourke was a city council member in El Paso whose tiny national profile was limited to being one of the few elected politicians in the country back then in favor of legalizing marijuana. He used that issue in part to who successfully primary a long-time House incumbent in 2012, caucusing with the New Democrat Coalition of self-styled pro-growth moderates. He sits on the Armed Services and Veterans’ Affairs committees, and has also sponsored a bunch of immigration-related bills during his tenure. And now he’s gunning for Ted Cruz.
I interviewed O’Rourke yesterday about immigration, guns, and weed on Sirius XM Insight’s Stand Up! With Pete Dominick program (we did a longer interview for Reason in 2015, and Mike Riggs also interviewed him here in 2013). The congressman wargamed upcoming negotiations over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (“I’m not seeing it”), lamented that Congress doesn’t even debate things any more let alone vote, and reiterated his controversial assertion that we’re already enjoying “record safety and security on our border.”
The following is an edited transcript of our conversation:
Reason: Yesterday, the Supreme Court let stay an injunction against president Trump’s action on DACA. Can you give us a sort of snapshot: What is the state of play from your perspective on Capitol Hill on immigration negotiations and DACA, which expires in a week?
O’Rourke: I wish I had better news. While I’m grateful for the reprieve granted by the Supreme Court, and the finding that there’s at least something to the contention that the president’s decision to end DACA was arbitrary and capricious, I don’t know that my colleagues are making the most of this moment. We, as you know, cannot even get a vote—not scheduled, not taken, not even promised, not even alluded to by the speaker, who controls the ability to bring legislation to the floor. In the Senate, they devoted a week to this—which in Senate time, that’s like years—and were unable to get to 60 votes to move forward with any kind of meaningful vote or debate.
I don’t know what it’s going to take. The anxiety and fear that you see on the face of those Dreamers, stories that their friends and teachers are sharing with us from their communities, for whatever reason it’s not moving the majority to allow us to move forward on this. The way I look at it, having a vote doesn’t obligate anybody to vote a certain way, it just allows what is supposed to be the world’s greatest deliberative body to have the discussion and be able to understand this. Maybe I’m going to learn something by listening to my colleagues! But we don’t even have the opportunity to start there.
I don’t know if it’s going to be more pressure from the public, more of my colleagues facing the prospect of losing their re-election, to bring them to the table, but something’s missing in that debate right now. I wish I could do more to bring more people to the table. We’ll continue to try, though.
Reason: In the past, certainly 2006 and 2013, which were the big previous run-ups to an attempt at a comprehensive immigration reform—and who knows if this current thing is going to be comprehensive at all; I’d actually kind of bet against it—anyways, in the past, those negotiations have been between centrists, essentially. John McCain and Teddy Kennedy back in the day; in 2013 others from that point of view….
My impression from the outside is that the negotiations are actually between more the extremes on both sides, or at least committed activists. The Stephen Millers on the Trump side, and the more legalize-everybodys on the Democratic side. What is your assessment of who is going to be doing the real negotiation here?
O’Rourke: I’m more familiar with the House, where you see perhaps the first example that you gave playing out. If you have somebody like Pete Aguilar, who’s a Democrat from California, more of a centrist Democrat, in what they call a “frontline” district where the Democratic advantage is minimal, if it even exists. Will Hurd, a Republican, my colleague and neighbor in Texas, who’s on another one of those frontline districts.
They’ve come together with a Dreamer/border security deal that has, I believe, 27 Republican co-sponsors. By the math, if you figure most Democrats would vote for it, and you have those 27 Republicans, it passes the House. The logjam seems to be—you mentioned Stephen Miller—the White House plays the Trump card in this one with Paul Ryan. He said, “I will not bring anything to the floor that does not have the president’s approval,” and there’s been nothing.
Even the most extreme versions of a Dreamer fix or a border security bill have not seemed to satisfy the White House so far….It’s unfortunate given that the Constitution begins with the first article, which is Congress, and that Ryan seems to have abdicated our independence to the president’s advisors on this issue, and to the politics of immigration, and the fear and the paranoia of Mexican immigrants coming to get us that the president stoked—although he wasn’t the first to do this—in his maiden speech, and then promising a wall to keep them out despite record safety and security on our border.
You’ve got Ted Cruz promising to triple the size of the Border Patrol, which already has 20,000 agents. The average number of apprehensions for an El Paso agent, which is the largest sector on the Mexican border, is five for the entire year. I think the debate has really gotten off the tracks and away from reality and the facts.
Again, I come back to what will the political pressure be that forces Ryan to allow for a vote, or gets it to a 60 vote threshold on the Senate side of this? I’m not seeing it. It may take the math changing after the 2018 elections. I hope it doesn’t; I’m not going to assume that, I’m going to do everything we can with our colleagues. But it’s pretty dispiriting right now.
Reason: What, for you, is a deal breaker on an immigration deal? You referenced how border security, which is already tripled or quadrupled or quintupled over the past 10 years in terms of the money given to ICE and on the wall funding that’s already grown. So for you, if they’re putting X amount of money for more wall and fencing, is that a deal breaker? Is decreasing the total amount of legal immigration, is that a deal breaker for you? What are your flash points?
O’Rourke: I’ll try to keep an open mind, and I’m just reminded of the [saying about] not allowing the perfect to become the enemy of the good. If we can make things better and it’s imperfectly done, well so be it.
It’s going to be really hard at a time of record safety and security on the U.S.-Mexico border. You have the lowest levels of northbound apprehensions in our lifetimes, and we’re spending about 19 and a half billion dollars on border security just in case a terrorist or a terrorist group wants to come get us from Mexico, which has never happened. I’ve asked the counter-terrorism folks, the FBI, the CIA: no instances of that. But just in case, we’re vigilant, we’re ready, we’re there.
To add more to the already 600 miles of fencing and walls and physical barriers along that 2,000-mile border, to further militarize our communities, to end migration as we know it—sometimes called “block migration,” “block chain migration,” or “family migration”—it’s going to be really hard for me to get there.
The Dreamers are the first to remind us that in their minds, at least, the original dreamers were their parents who made the decision to come here in the first place. I’m really open to listening to my colleagues about how we resolve that. There has to be a consequence for breaking the law. There has to be an understanding that there are people who are trying to do this by the law and are waiting in lines that stretch 15 and 20 years long to get into the U.S. when they’re being sponsored by a family member.
I don’t think there’s a silver bullet, and I’m not going to be righteous on this. I also can’t make a compromise that will compromise who we are. The lasting shame of building a wall or ending an immigration process that allowed my family to be here and millions of others, just is not something that I could live with. I’m going to try to do my best to work and keep an open mind on these things, but those are some tough issues for me.
Reason: We’ve had four presidents in a row now who have made a show out of—or made a priority on, we’ll not be cynical—out of increasing border security and doing that sort of first before we get on to other issues there….In the political arena, for the most part, that has been just a kind of a no-brainer. It’s automatic: “Well, let’s just increase border security.” As someone who represents a border district and lives down there, can you give us a sense of what is a potential practical downside to the never-ending ratchet up of border security?
O’Rourke: Yeah. I’m glad you brought it up. For those of us who live on the border…this rhetoric, from Democrats as well as Republicans, is just so divorced from reality, and just stupid. I live in one of the safest if not the safest cities in the world. Yes, we have a lot of local and federal law enforcement who do a great job keeping us safe, but also we’re a community of immigrants. I think that’s correlated to our safety.
Democrats, especially, I’m disappointed with, because they make this concession that I don’t think they fully believe in. But they think that if they show that they’re tough on immigration, that they’re tough on the border, if they can talk a big game, then they’ll be able to get concessions on the other side for legalizing those who are already in this country. It’s just a failing strategy every single time.
When you begin with a premise that is just untrue, that the border is inherently unsafe and that we’ve got this raging problem there that requires more billions, more boots, more drones, and more military equipment, then the goal line will always continue to move back. You just can never get to 100 percent safety and security, and so you’ll never get to move on to the next issues.
I worked on a bill with John Cornyn, a Republican member of the Senate, a bicameral, bipartisan bill that would increase funding and staffing at our ports of entry. Why are those important? More than 99 percent of everything that comes into the U.S. from Mexico—legal entry, illegal entry, legal commerce, illegal commerce—comes through those ports.
More Customs officers means more people are inspected, more goods are searched. We have a better understanding of who and what is coming into our country. It facilitates hundreds of billions of dollars in U.S.-Mexico trade, millions of jobs throughout the country. Six million [jobs] is a conservative estimate by the Department of Commerce that depend on U.S.-Mexico trade. It’s good for jobs. It’s good for economic growth. It’s good for security. It’s a bipartisan solution [for] a legitimate concern.
I won’t just criticize past attempts on border security; I’m trying to offer something that I think makes sense and has found a bipartisan path forward. Maybe that becomes a starting point for negotiations apart from a wall, or ending migration as we know it right now.
Reason: Let’s shift gears to what the country has been talking about for the last 10 days, which is gun policy. You are running for statewide office in the state of Texas, which, last I looked, is a place where people kind of enjoy being able to have a gun….
Reason: What do you want to see in terms of gun policies, reforms, going forward? What do you take from the president’s comments about bump stocks and suchlike?
O’Rourke: Yeah, yeah. No, Texas has got a great tradition and heritage when it comes to gun ownership. In my family, [I was] taught to shoot and own, handle a gun, by my uncle, who’s a jail captain and sheriff’s deputy and proud marksman. That’s the story for a lot of Texans who use guns for hunting, or self-protection, or collection, or sport. All of which are fine and legitimate.
As I listen to the Texans across the state and hold these town hall meetings, they don’t understand why, for example, the Centers for Disease Control is functionally prohibited from even studying gun violence so that lawmakers like me can make better-informed policy and decisions. They don’t understand why we don’t have comprehensive universal background checks, why there are still millions of gun purchases being made that are not being reviewed in this country. I take it from the Vietnam-era veterans who used AR-15s in the jungles of Vietnam, who ask why is this gun—which was designed for the sole purpose of being able to kill people as effectively and efficiently as possible—being sold to people in our communities right now?
Those are just three areas that I would like to find some common ground with my colleagues on. As you know, I’ve been in Congress for five years. There’s been not even common ground [on guns], much like immigration today, not even a vote. You can’t even have a debate.
Listen, I’m humble enough to know that I don’t know everything about this. I’d love to hear from my colleagues, what they think about this, and maybe they can convince me that there is a reason to be able to purchase an AR-15 and use that, and have those on the streets of our communities. I’m open to their argument, but we can’t even have the debate. I can think of nothing more un-American than being afraid of having the conversation and listening to one another and then coming up with a policy and voting. Up or down, what do you all think? …
Reason: A lot of people are paying attention to your race against Ted Cruz, for understandable reasons. I presume, without having done the research, that this will be the most expensive Senate race in 2018, just because Texas is big and it’s a big prize, certainly, for the Democratic Party. One thing that really struck me in just doing some Google News searches on you, they don’t mention pot. It’s like, you were Pot Guy eight years ago, and now it’s not even an issue. Does it even come up, like in cross examination? Has Ted Cruz tried to make you a weed guy?
O’Rourke: He has not. I mean, I don’t know that he’s even really acknowledged the existence of a campaign or an election.
I’ll tell you what’s interesting. I was in Waco, Texas, just off the Baylor campus at an ice cream parlor on Saturday night, holding a town hall meeting there. Mostly young people, good questions about gun safety and gun violence, cost of education. Then there was an older couple, and they pulled me aside afterwards.
The woman said, “Look, I’m too embarrassed to say this in front of everybody, but I have fibromyalgia”—which I’d never heard of before—”and it means there’s basically just pain throughout my body, almost all the time, severe fatigue, memory loss. The only thing that seems to work is medical cannabis, or marijuana, or pot, you know, whatever you want to call it. And, why in the hell am I a criminal in the eyes of the law for doing the one thing that makes this better, which even my doctor says is the thing that I should be taking?”
You listen to her, or you go to Greenspoint in Houston, and you listen to moms whose kids are in jail right now for marijuana possession. You go to…Wichita Falls, a whole neighborhood, and a lot of them are convicted felons. Their first offense was a marijuana possession arrest. They’ve just got police cruising that neighborhood looking for the next catch. Yeah, this absolutely has to be an issue that we decide in part through this election.