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Broken Border

After debate, O’Rourke scrambles to shore up immigration credentials

The Democratic presidential candidate, sharply challenged on his signature issue Wednesday night, spent the next few days working to show his bona fides.

Presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke speaks at a rally the Customs and Border Patrol facility in Clint on June 30, 2019.

Broken Border

A surge of migrants arriving at the Texas-Mexico border has pushed the country's immigration system to the breaking point as new policies aimed at both undocumented immigrants and legal asylum seekers have contributed to a humanitarian crisis. The Texas Tribune is maintaining its in-depth reporting on this national issue.

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After a debate in which he was sharply challenged on his signature issue — immigration — Beto O’Rourke sprang into action.

On Friday morning, the Democratic presidential candidate announced he would visit a controversial migrant detention center the next morning in Houston. On Friday afternoon, the former congressman announced he would travel to a U.S. Border Patrol facility Sunday morning — in Clint, near his El Paso hometown. And late Saturday night, he announced he was taking it a step farther — literally — with plans to cross the border into Ciudad Juárez.

The visits were, of course, not the first time O’Rourke has shown interest in the plight of migrants, particularly those in detention — he most notably helped lead the opposition a year ago to the now-closed Tornillo "tent city." But the timing was notable, representing an apparent effort to shore up his credentials on the issue after a Democratic debate dustup over it with fellow Texan Julián Castro.

“I’d tell him … no one’s worked harder to end the practice of family separation,” O’Rourke told CNN the morning after the debate, a statement he seemed determined to prove over the ensuing few days as he and Castro crisscrossed the state.

Facilities like the one in Clint, which Castro went to Saturday, have drawn attention for what immigration advocates and lawyers describe as inhumane conditions. They remained in the headlines over the weekend after news surfaced of the death of a 43-year-old migrant from El Salvador, who was hospitalized after collapsing at a border processing center in McAllen. He is at least the eighth person to have died in U.S. border custody since December.

At the debate, Castro, the former U.S. housing secretary and San Antonio mayor, put O’Rourke on defense over a law criminalizing unauthorized border crossings that Castro wants to repeal — and has sought to make a litmus test in the primary field with some real success. On the second night of the debate — Castro and O’Rourke participated the first night — all but one or two of the 10 candidates raised their hands when asked if they thought it "should be a civil offense rather than a crime to cross the border without documentation."

Castro has argued that nixing the law, known as Section 1325, is the surest way to end family separations at the border because the Trump administration has used it as the legal justification for the practice. O’Rourke also advocates for ending family separation, though he has not gone as far as endorsing a repeal of Section 1325 and instead talks about rewriting it, like a bill he co-sponsored last year in Congress that would decriminalize entry for asylum seekers and refugees.

Either way, Castro's debate-stage confrontation with O'Rourke over Section 1325 — complete with Castro's suggestion O'Rourke had not done his "homework" on it — left O'Rourke bruised on an issue he has long prioritized.

"I think it's clear that O'Rourke was broadsided, and the vessel's taking on water pretty fast," said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. "It doesn't mean he's sinking quickly, but it definitely is not a good place to be when the race will tighten very soon."

"From a strategic perspective, I think O'Rourke's campaign is right — you've got to try to shore this up," said Richard Pineda, a communications professor at the University of Texas at El Paso who has long followed O'Rourke's political career. "I didn't think he looked very good during the debate, full stop, but then on immigration ... I think that that exchange showed a vulnerability."

At most of his stops since the debate, O'Rourke has reminded audiences of the public pressure — and his high-profile role in it — that led to the Tornillo tent city being shut down in January. Castro also participated in protests at Tornillo, though O'Rourke was in a far more visible position at the time, beginning to gain national attention in his Senate race.

The post-debate split-screen came into focus Friday afternoon, when state Rep. Mary González, a Castro endorser who represents Clint, announced he would join her for a visit to the facility the next morning. A short time later Friday, O'Rourke announced he, too, was heading to Clint, organizing a protest there Sunday morning.

During his trip to the El Paso area Saturday morning, Castro met with advocates and toured a nonprofit that aids migrants released from detention centers. He was not able to gain access to the Clint facility but held a news conference outside with local lawmakers in which he continued to push for the repeal of Section 1325, according to the El Paso Times.

While Castro was in Clint, O'Rourke rallied protesters outside the Southwest Key shelter in Houston. He challenged the nonprofit to allow public inspection, to not share parents' immigration status with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and to "put your money where your mouth is" by refusing taxpayer dollars until the federal government ensures family reunification.

Then, late Saturday night, after O'Rourke headlined two fundraisers that had initially brought him to Houston for the day, his campaign announced he would cross the border Sunday from El Paso to neighboring Ciudad Juárez to meet with asylum seekers being turned away from the United States under Trump administration policies. His campaign billed it as the "first foreign trip by a presidential candidate this cycle."

O'Rourke headed Sunday morning into Ciudad Juárez, where he visited a shelter and heard emotional testimony from Central American migrants fleeing dangerous situations back home. O'Rourke said he hoped their stories ensured that the "conscience of our country is awoken right now."

Appearing later Sunday morning at the previously announced Clint protest, O'Rourke told reporters he was glad Castro made the trip a day earlier — and continued to try to set the record straight after the debate skirmish.

"I think anybody who comes out to see this is a great thing," O'Rourke said. "So I am grateful that he did that. I do want to make sure, though, that we don’t play politics or try to score points over ensuring that our immigration system reflects our values and our interests. He knows full well that as a member of Congress, we co-sponsored legislation that would end family separation and stop criminal prosecution under [Section] 1325 for anybody seeking asylum or refuge in this country."

Castro has done little to tamp down the rivalry since the debate, declaring during dueling events Friday night in Austin that he is now "the Texan" in the race, a claim that drew a rare intraparty retort from O'Rourke's campaign. But Castro has also insisted that their disagreement during the debate was about policy, not personality, a message he amplified in a round of TV interviews Sunday morning and as he has stumped across Texas since the debate.

In any case, the tiff was on the minds of some Castro allies Saturday evening when Castro returned home to San Antonio for a Pride-themed happy hour. One of the introductory speakers was Gina Ortiz Jones, the Democratic challenger to U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, who has had a fraught relationship with O'Rourke since O'Rourke's decision to stay neutral in the 2018 race to unseat his friend Hurd.

"That debate, though," Jones said at the happy hour. "1325, Section 1325 — we now all know it. Everybody know it? Everybody on the stage now knows it."

Julián Aguilar contributed reporting.

Disclosure: The University of Houston and the University of Texas at El Paso have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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