More than 200 people attended a town hall meeting in downtown Brownsville where Congressman Beto O’Rourke, who hopes to unseat U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, addressed immigration and low-voter turnout in the Rio Grande Valley, among other issues.
“As a proud fronterizo, this is the best time, the most critical time, for us to be where we are and from where we are, because the rest of the country needs our leadership right now,” O’Rourke said.
The El Paso resident is vying for the Democratic nomination against Sema Hernandez, a businesswoman from Pasadena, and Edward Kimbrough, a retired U.S. Postal Service industrial engineer from Houston. The winner of the March 6 primary election will face off against the Republican nominee in November.
State Rep. René Oliveira (D-Brownsville) attended the town hall and asked O’Rourke what he and fellow Democrats will do to protect DACA recipients.
“One of the concerns that I have is that [President Donald Trump] has successfully put us in a box with the issue of the wall versus the DACA children,” Oliveira said. “It concerns me that, for one, it seems like he’s done something harmful by putting us in this difficult position. It’s making it sound like the wall would be a trade-off that would be accepted. I need you to please assure us, me, that this trade-off isn’t going to happen.”
O’Rourke replied it is important for community members to share their story on living by the border, so he can relay them to Congress. The congressman also said the border has never been more secure or safe.
“Immigrants commit crimes at a far lower rate than do native-born Americans, but for whatever reason, those facts are not hitting home,” he said. “I will assure you, I will not accept a wall as a compromise for legalizing Dreamers because I think it will force us to compromise ourselves and our values and who we are.”
In an interview with The Rider after the town hall, the congressman said he met several Dreamers during his visit in Brownsville who have shared their stories and expressed their concerns regarding the DACA situation.
“The leadership on this issue is coming from Dreamers,” O’Rourke said. “They’re not just advocating for themselves, and this is what I find so powerful and so inspiring, they say, ‘We want to be legal here in the U.S. We want to have a pathway to citizenship, but it cannot come at the expense of our parents,’ who they call the original Dreamers.”
O’Rourke said he wants to honor Dreamers’ commitment in the midst of the fear they feel right now by working to pass legislation that can help everyone.
During the town hall, UTRGV political science Professor Mark Kaswan spoke about the low-voter turnout rate in Texas, especially in the Valley, and how an increase can, potentially, affect the winning party.
“The key to a Democrat winning is [voter] turnout in the Valley,” Kaswan said. “If the Valley can get up to the rates of turnout that they have in the Houston or Dallas suburbs and Sugar Land, where people turnout 70 to 80 percent … if we can get the Valley to turn out at that rate, then it becomes the tail that wags the dog of the state of Texas. What I want to know is what your strategy is to get people out to vote in the Rio Grande Valley.”
O’Rourke replied that Texans are going to be his guide and lead in ensuring people have a reason to vote. He said his goal is to make sure no one, especially people in the Valley, feels they have been taken for granted or “written off.”
“You will win or you will lose this election for Texas,” O’Rourke said. “It comes down to the Rio Grande Valley, to the people who are here tonight, and there will be no party machine or party boss or even candidate for U.S. Senate who is going to get this done. It’s on all of us.”
Kaswan, who spoke with The Rider after the town hall, said the Valley is heavily Democratic.
“If people here vote Democratic, it will change politics in the state of Texas at a fundamental level,” he said.
Brownsville resident Brenda Bazán asked O’Rourke what measures he will take so that people who oppose his views feel represented.
“For the five years I’ve been a member of Congress, serving in the House Veterans Affairs and House Armed Services committees, I’ve also held a town hall like this in El Paso every single month,” he replied. “All comers welcomed. No holds barred. Anyone can ask any question, level any criticism, offer any idea. It’s not limited to supporters and, in fact, sometimes I feel like it is my opponents who are coming to that meeting first and foremost.”
O’Rourke said people who are upset on the votes he takes or oppose his views usually attend the monthly El Paso town halls. He said those are the people he wants to be in front of to understand and represent them, even if they won’t vote for him.
Jacqueline Stone, a math teacher at a detention center that serves Cameron and Willacy counties, mentioned most people who leave prison and have completed their parole without any violations are still not able to vote.
Stone asked O’Rourke what he would do to help people who left prison but still cannot vote.
“I think the first thing we need to do is stop putting so many people in prison to begin with,” he replied. “We put more of our own people behind prison than does any other country to their people. … Let’s stop putting so many people in prison. Then, after they’ve done their time, let’s make sure they can fully participate in civic life again and contribute to their full potential.”
Joey Lopez, the board president for South Texas Independent School District and a candidate for Cameron County commissioner, Precinct 2, asked the congressman what his plan was on correcting health insurance.
O’Rourke replied he is going to try to find a way to work with Republicans to find health care that can be beneficial to everyone.
He would like to expand Medicaid throughout Texas, even if it means it has to be called Abbottcare or any other name. O’Rourke also said he, ultimately, believes the country needs to get to universal health care.
Asked what message he had for students, the congressman replied: “The message is this is our chance to lead. … I am so proud of the border because we are standing up for ourselves and for the country and we’re leading on the things that we know better than anybody else. The only way that each one of us is going to be able to lead this year is by voting in these elections. … If we don’t take this opportunity to decide our future, we will lose it and could very well lose this country in addition to the Dreamers and immigrants who make this country so strong.”
In the Republican primary, incumbent Cruz (R-Texas) is being challenged by Stefano de Stefano, an energy attorney from Houston; Bruce Jacobson Jr., vice president of Media for LIFE Outreach International, a former staff assistant for the U.S. Transportation Department and a deputy representative for the Labor Department under the Reagan and Bush administrations, respectively; Geraldine Sam, a retired schoolteacher and former mayor of La Marque; and Mary Miller, a certified public accountant from Austin.