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Congressman Beto O’Rourke: There is No Border Crisis

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Beto O'Rourke
Beto O'Rourke

A lot of Texas politicians are having a political pachanga with the influx of child refugees fleeing Central America.

Rick Perry has practically lived in front of a TV camera over the last month, talking tough about a border crackdown, bashing Obama for not visiting the Rio Grande Valley, and posing with Sean Hannity on a DPS gunboat. On Monday, the governor—joined by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Attorney General Greg Abbott—announced that he was dispatching 1,000 National Guard troops to the border, part of a Texas-led border surge costing $12 million a month. Ted Cruz is floating a proposal to roll back modest protections afforded by President Obama to DREAMers. Wendy Davis keeps calling on Perry to declare a state of emergency and hold a special session on immigration at the Texas Legislature—for reasons even her most ardent supporters have struggled to articulate.

Sen. John Cornyn and Congressman Henry Cuellar, a Laredo Democrat, are sponsoring the hopefully named HUMANE Act, which would undo rewrite a 2008 anti-trafficking law that allowed children from countries other than Mexico and Canada to be released to family members in the U.S. while their cases are processed. Under the proposed legislation, Central American kids—six, seven, eight years old—would have to convince a Border Patrol agent that they should be allowed to stay in the U.S. long enough to plead their case, and then would have just seven days, probably unassisted by an attorney, to make a case for asylum, or other protections, in front of an immigration judge. The effect—and one assumes, the intent—would most likely be to greatly diminish the number of children and families receiving asylum and refugee protections.

The most powerful politicos in the state pretty much agree: the border is in crisis, the Central American children are a sad case but, alas, must be deported and the federal government is all to blame. Unspoken: The border crisis makes for great election-year politics.

For Congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-El Paso), it’s all sickeningly out of touch with reality. There is no border crisis, he told me in an interview on Tuesday. Apprehensions are at historic lows. El Paso, and other border cities, are among the safest in the nation. In any case, the U.S. bears much responsibility for the conditions in Central America driving the exodus. And we should be expanding protections for refugees, not gutting them. The HUMANE Act—or as he calls it, “the quote-unquote HUMANE Act”—is a “very short-sighted, inhumane, irrational response” to a flood of refugees that deserve compassion, not neglect or opprobrium, O’Rourke said.

It’s not exactly the message you’re hearing from Texas elected officials. But O’Rourke, who grew up in El Paso and speaks fluent Spanish, brings a border sensibility to the issue, tempered by a wide-angle internationalism that’s a rarity among Texas pols. He’s more Open Veins of Latin America than Fox News.

O’Rourke is but a freshman congressman in a Republican-controlled House, so his ability to craft policy in Washington is admittedly limited. But he’s pledging to work within the Democratic caucus to torpedo the HUMANE Act, especially if it’s tied to the president’s $3.7 billion request for funding to pay for handling the surge of child refugees.

Beyond the legislation, O’Rourke offers a remarkably different perspective on border and immigration realities than the hysteria that’s taken hold in some quarters. Here are some highlights of our interview:

 

On the HUMANE Act:

“I’m trying to find polite words, quotable comments. It’s terrible legislation, I find nothing redeeming in it. It will rush these kids back to the communities from which they fled, which in many cases will almost certainly mean death, will mean suffering, and adding to the workforce of these criminal syndicates that are pressing them into service in cities like San Pedro Sula in Honduras.”

“One of the terrible bargains that whoever was here in 2008 made was in order to treat child refugees or child asylum-seekers from other countries humanely we will not treat asylum seekers from Mexico humanely, so we’ll reduce the level of due process that they get. So what Cornyn, Cuellar and [Rep. Ron Barber (D-AZ)] want to do is take that reduced level and apply it to everyone else, and obviously that means the kids from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

“The HUMANE Act changes the [asylum] framework and accelerates it so that within seven days—and I’ve got three little kids and I can only imagine them having to struggle with this—within a week they have to prove to a judge in a language that’s not their own, without the assistance of an attorney, that they should qualify for an asylum process, a trafficking visa or some other legitimate reason to stay. If they can’t, they are deported—that’s so wrong on so many levels. And we can see the evidence from how we’ve treated children from Mexico: This almost certainly guarantees that the vast majority—I think in the case of Mexican children it’s been well over 90 percent—will be returned to their country of origin. And we know what’s going to happen to those kids.

“I’m confident, absolutely confident that once my colleagues have the facts and realize what this will do to kids they will also vote against it.”

 

On why Cuellar would sponsor the HUMANE Act:

“That is what has been so hard to understand for me… You’re asking a really good question. Why these kind of—I don’t know what the right word for them is—these proposals that just really don’t make any sense and aren’t responsive to what we’re seeing and what we know about the border. That I don’t know.

“It is not helpful when you have Democrats who traditionally have been the party that would want to see due process, especially for kids fleeing violence, who I feel like have upheld some of the best humanitarian traditions of this country, it makes it tough when you have Democrats sponsoring bills like the the HUMANE Act, which for all the talk and attention could become part of this deal, then it becomes much harder to say any one party is responding appropriately.”

 

On the notion of a border “crisis”:

“We really don’t have a crisis. You look at total apprehensions this year, last year, the year before, the year before that, we’re at an all-time historical low. If you compare the data as of June this year and compare it to 1999, you’re down about 68 percent in terms of apprehensions at the southern border. It’s not a law enforcement problem. Cities like El Paso are safer than any other city in the country. The U.S. side of the U.S.—Mexico border is safer than the average American city.”

 

On the root causes of the exodus from Central America:

“You look at these three countries and the enormous stresses that are placed on them right now, whether it’s the volume of drugs being trafficked through them, whether it’s our drug interdiction efforts that are further destabilizing civil society there.

“A much more difficult, but probably much more fundamental issue, is just the very long history of U.S. involvement in Central America to the detriment of the people who live there going back to Jacobo Arbenz to the military strongmen who succeeded him to the tens of thousands who were killed to our involvement in the civil wars in the 1980s to the kids—and you’ve probably seen this in the [Observer] archives—you look at the reporting in the mid-’80s, kids are fleeing Central America for the United States, many of them because we had no process then to accept them.

“There was no trafficking victims law, so they weren’t sent over to [U.S. Health and Human Services]. Many of them ended up in jails and became hardened criminals, got involved in gangs and then upon release from jail are deported back to the countries where they haven’t spent the majority of their lives in, and end up organizing gang cells, essentially, in those countries and helping to contribute to the problem we see today.

“We’ve tried our best to ignore Central America, prioritizing Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Israel—all for good reasons, it seemed at the time, but we neglected [Central America] and the consequence is that there are now literally tens of thousands of kids literally knocking on our door, saying ‘Hey, what about us?’ And we’ve got to do something about it. And I think the very short-sighted, inhumane, irrational response is embodied in the HUMANE Act. You can deport those kids back and some of them are going to be killed, many of them are going to be hurt and live worse lives for being deported, but those problems aren’t going away.”

 

On what should be done:

“No. 1, let’s get these kids attorneys. Anyone who has children can put themselves in the place of the parents of the children who are now in this process. When you can do that, when you can empathize, you immediately understand that those kids need an attorney. These are really complex laws, these are frightening situations and to put a child before an immigration judge at age 7, 8, 10, 11, 12 without an attorney is just wrong and on the flip side to give that child counsel allows them to tell their story, to make a legitimate application for asylum. And we will find in some cases that there is not a legitimate case, that they have not passed the credible fear bar and they should be sent back to their country of origin. That’s a very difficult thing to say but that’s going to have to happen in some cases. But I think we will find in quite a number of these cases, and I would argue in the great majority of them, that we have legitimate asylum requests and they should be honored. That’s just the right thing to do…

“The most important, most difficult and long term answer, is to help get these countries back on the right track. We know that kids and families leaving these three countries are not just going to the U.S. Asylum applications in neighboring countries are up 700 percent over the last five years. So let’s work with Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and join them with these three countries—Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala—and come up with a truly regional response. Part of which is just gonna be let’s acknowledge that we need to take some of these children and families. They are legitimately refugees.

“And then we need to address the civil society, rule of law, governance, corruption issues in these three countries that have made life so unbearable and so unsafe. And that’s why I say it’s so difficult. That’s a many years process. There are sovereignty issues, there’s a lot of history with the U.S. in these countries that’s not necessarily positive. So it’s going to take a lot of doing. But if we are so bold to think we can solve the impasse between Israel and Palestine, if we think we can build nations in Iraq and Afghanistan, all of which may or may not be the right thing for us to be involved in, certainly these countries in our own hemisphere whose citizens are literally knocking on our door right now, that deserves our attention. I think it’s going to be very difficult to do, but very doable once we decide we want to do it.”

Correction: The original version of this story stated that the HUMANE Act would “undo” the 2008 William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection and Reauthorization Act. It is more accurately described as rewriting that 2008 law. The story has been corrected.

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is associate editor of the Observer. Forrest specializes in environmental reporting and runs the “Forrest for the Trees” blog. Forrest has appeared on Democracy Now!, The Rachel Maddow Show and numerous NPR stations. His work has been mentioned by The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Time magazine and many other state and national publications. Other than filing voluminous open records requests, Forrest enjoys fishing, kayaking, gardening and beer-league softball. He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.

  • GOP Julie

    Once again, “reporter” (I use this term loosely) Wilder can’t see the “forrest” for the trees. Apprehensions are down because the Obama administration continues to look the other way. A cynical political ploy to be sure, and this “reporter” falls for it hook, line and sinker.

    • Forrest Wilder

      So, I guess the 21,000 Border Patrol agents—a record number—are taking instructions from Obama on how to ignore border-crossers and drive down apprehension rates?

      • GOP Julie

        Apprehension rates may be down, but that doesn’t mean illegal crossers are not getting into the country. With 21,000 Border Patrol agents, the risk of apprehension has shifted. Illegal crossers know they have a 70 percent chance of getting caught between the ports. So, now they’re going through the ports where the risk of apprehension is 30 percent. Meanwhile, no additional funding has been appropriated to hire additional Customs inspectors (who man the ports) in more than a decade. It’s all gone to the Border Patrol.

        • jpmcculloch

          This is a bogus argument. We have no before and after statistics on these alleged new methods of getting past the border. You can’t say that the hard data that says illegal immigration is dramatically down, is somehow invalidated by your hypothetical field study which gives us no actual evidence that total immigration is up. In fact, your very claim that this procedure is much more costly militates against such a view. Paranoia is no substitute for actual numbers.

          • GOP Julie

            Bogus? Are you a border expert? If you doubt the UC-Davis field study, I suggest you link to noted Washington Post reporter Spencer Hsu’s article, citing CBP and GAO data.

            http://www.ifapray.org/archive/ScienceArtCulture/SAC_2007/Border%20Security%20Falls%20Short%20In%20Audit.html

          • jpmcculloch

            The fact that this study is 5 years old tells us that these supposed new methods of getting past the border are not actually new. But the main problem with studies that tell us that people COULD be getting through in ways and in numbers we don’t know about is the same as with assertions that more angels could be dancing on the head of a pin than we can see. Yes, could be. But in the absence of hard data, it is all conjecture. And it is politically motivated conjecture, in the case of the hysteria-mongers, with an obvious motive. Sorry to be so blunt.

          • GOP Julie

            Then I suggest you contact CBP and demand they release the current hard data, which they have refused to do. They have classified the information in the name of Homeland Security.

          • Nicko Thime

            Yes. You can. Your doubt amounts to an ideological opinion based on another opinion.

        • Nicko Thime

          Statistically Illegal immigration is down too. They were highest under Bush,.
          You’d know that if you switched channels

  • GOP Julie

    “…tens of thousands of kids literally knocking on our door…”
    “We really don’t have a crisis.”

    Will you square those two statements for your readers, please?

    • jpmcculloch

      Easy, Julie. We don’t really have a border crisis. Illegal immigration is down from a few years ago. Yes we do have a humanitarian crisis. But a few thousand desperate and terrified children can’t be perceived as a threat by a rational person.

      • GOP Julie

        A few thousand? You need to check your math.

      • stormkite

        But these are republicultists we’re talking to and about, by definition not capable of being rational persons.

  • GOP Julie

    So, we’re suppose to ignore Iraq and Afghanistan who harbor radical Islamic terrorists and whose successful plot to fly jetliners into multiple skyscrapers and the Pentagon killed more than 3,000 people on American soil? Is that what you’re suggesting, Forrest?

    • Jano Szabo

      The 9/11 terrorists used a state financed boondoggle – Big Air – to murder people crowded into another state subsidized boondoggle – The World Trade Center – to bait American militarists into a global financial boondoggle – The War on Terror.

      Never was there better proof that concentrating power destroys security.

      • GOP Julie

        So, America is supposed to just sit back and take it. Turn the other cheek. Cower rather than lead. Hmmm.

      • TEDjosa

        marvin bush and george walker were in charge of security in new yawk twin towers and the arabas who supposedly flew the jets trained in florida how did theses folks train with out folks getting suspicious any one jeb bush was governor of florida soall roads lead to the bushes and saudi arabia

    • Helen Marshall

      Are you actually suggesting that these children will be flying jetliners into skyscrapers? Is that the best the GOP can do these days?

      • Tami Tipton Halphen

        Last I heard they are worried about ebola! These people are ridiculous!

      • GOP Julie

        You really are a simpleton. My response has nothing to do with the children and everything to do with the suggestion by liberal nut jobs like Forrest and Beto O’Rourke that America must abandon its interests in the Middle East and focus all of its attention and resources on Central America. I think America has the resources to do both. To do anything less would be insane and dangerous.

        • Nicko Thime

          Who will pay for it?
          You?
          Other right-wingers who are already whining about the lowest tax burden in 6o years and whose refusal to pay for the last 2 years dug the hole we are standing in??

      • southtpa

        they could it”s not that difficult to fly an airplane. you have no idea what is crossing the border illegally. now if they applied for admission you would have a chance to do some checking. there have been child suicide bombers

        • TEDjosa

          theses little munchkins fly jets into buildings what do they use for jets pinto bean farts and magic flying tortillas and bomb the tall builings in dallas with bean farts

  • Helen Marshall

    Extremely well thought out. I am saddened by the comments here. Some of these folks appear to be terrified by children, whom they manage to put on the same level as the 9/11 terrorists. Not exactly what the United States used to stand for.

    • GOP Julie

      Not terrified of children – just acknowledging reality. America’s immigration system is broken and needs to be fixed. There is a humanitarian crisis to be sure. However, there is honest disagreement over solutions.

  • 1bimbo

    o’rourke: ‘you didn’t know how bad it was before so it’s not as bad now’ .. donkey party, you’re never going to make in roads in the lone star state if you keep electing people like this?

  • mimi@zombienation15

    Can we put Congressman O’Rourke on the Yellow Brick Road to the Presidency?

    He is a rare specimen> An elected leader who is a REAL human with A Heart, A Brain, & Courage !

  • Ana M. Fores Tamayo

    I salute Congressman O’Rourke for his great sense of dignity and truth in this hell of a Republican state, where to be anything but “rojo rojito”(which, in Venezuela, is actually antithetical to everything it means here!) you are seen as the enemy.

    I admire his guts, and wish that more would stand by his side, especially the slick politicians on both sides who are too mired in trying to get elected to see that children are in need: always the power of me comes first. This never ceases to amaze me…

    In any case, if you need or want some help figuring out where to really help children, take a look at my post, where I try to steer folks in the right direction: http://adjunctjustice.tumblr.com/post/92846176203/the-complex-issue-of-the-border-crisis-what-we-can-do

    Again, thank you Congressman O’Rourke, and thank you, Forrest Wilder, for publishing such incisive writing!

    In sol(idarity),

    Ana M. Fores Tamayo, Adjunct Justice
    Petition: http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/better-pay-for-adjuncts
    Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/AdjunctJustice

  • Andrea Filkins

    We’re hosting a fundraiser to buy backpacks for the kids (to be filled with necessities). $5 buys a backpack. Please help and share: http://www.gofundme.com/bz54zo

    • 1bimbo

      you should go down to the 5th ward in houston.. i bet they need school supplies too

  • Take The Cannoli

    I give him credit for at least acknowledging that this is a made-up “crisis” with a kid’s face to try and shove a change of the law down everyone’s throats. The zealots on the amnesty side are really no better than Governor Goodhair and his national guard absurdities.

    The border is, and always has been, about economic and social refugees. About one third of these illegal immigrants that are detained have a previous criminal record, over half of those charged with re-entry (meaning they’ve been back more than once) have a felony record. There are well thought out reasons why we have our laws. We need to enforce them. We need to ignore the current propaganda about children being sent to die. Where’s the proof? Crime is high in Honduras? You don’t say? Crime is high in Houston too. They are going to say whatever they have to to stay here.

    But if we do not have laws then we are no better then the governments in Central America these amnesty advocates like to trash. Follow the law. Economic refugees have no “right” to enter here. Instead of leading with BS child danger propaganda I’d like to see the amnesty advocates argue their case for changing the law.

  • 1bimbo

    o’rourke obviously didn’t take to any border agents..
    http://youtu.be/ZnkSXosZhic

  • michael8000

    This cuts through the hype of the mainstream media like a hot knife through butter. Thanks for the update, Forrest! Impressive words from Congressman O’Rourke.

    • 1bimbo

      you keep drinking the kool-aide

      • michael8000

        America has always had millions of refugees on our doorstep. Now there are less, but that doesn’t stop the right from concocting a pre-campaign “crisis on the border.”

        “Presidential” Perry is drumming up support for another (bungled) run for the White House and you appear to be stumbling over yourselves to oblige him.

        • 1bimbo

          i dont’ give two spits whether perry is running for president, but i care immensely that our leadership stop the hemorrhaging at the border

  • don76550

    No border crisis. O’Rourke you are either a fool or a liar.. People like you are why are peoples house is a house of reprehensibles

  • Jim in ELP

    When reading the criteria and definitions for “refugee” status and “asylum” status, the illegal immigrants that have crossed our border do not meet the requirements. It really is not ambiguous at all. If “fleeing poverty” were cause to open the immigration doors, we would have tens of millions of children from the Americas alone … simply not a realistic approach.