Beto O’Rourke speaks in Spanish during the first Democratic debate
Former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke, whose charisma helped him quickly rise into a national political figure during his 2018 Senate run against Ted Cruz, sputtered during the first Democratic debate in Miami Wednesday night when he was challenged on the topic on which he’s staked his claim: immigration.
While the 46-year-old from the border town of El Paso has rolled out comprehensive plans to fix what he calls a broken immigration system, his time on stage to discuss the topic was knocked mainly by fellow Texan and former Housing Secretary Julían Castro, the only Latino candidate and the first candidate to get a question on immigration.
When asked about what he would do as president to address a system that most recently left Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, dead in the Rio Grande, Castro pointed out that he’d push to decriminalize migration over the border.
On this, he sparred with O’Rourke over the former congressman’s reluctance to remove Section 1325, the section of the United States Code that makes it a misdemeanor for undocumented immigrants to enter the United States.
Castro wants to get rid of it, making being an undocumented immigrant in the U.S. a civil offense, but not a federal crime. He was cut off as he continued but implied that O’Rourke hasn’t “done his homework” on the issue.
To media after the debate, Castro continued to harp on O’Rourke’s understanding of the policy.
“I find it very ironic that a senator from Massachusetts and a senator from New Jersey are the ones who understand this border policy and this law better than Congressman O’Rourke,” he said.
O’Rourke’s campaign manager, Jen O’Malley Dillon, maintained that Castro was trying to make a point and get a moment in.
“I can tell you that Beto O’Rourke has done his homework on the issue,” she said after the debate. “I was not surprised that a lot of the candidates were being aggressive to try and get their moment in. ... Even in that fray, Beto rose above that and stayed focused on the issues.”
O’Rourke, the first candidate to speak Spanish on stage, has called for creating a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and promised that his first international trip as president would be to Mexico. With unique credibility as a voice from the border, he has pitched a system with the Mexican government that would track who was in the country, and also called for an immediate path to citizenship for the country’s 700,000 DACA recipients, also known as Dreamers.
Since his campaign rollout, O’Rourke has proposed dramatically reducing the detention of immigrants by requiring detention only for those with criminal backgrounds, eliminating funding for private prison operators and mandating an end to family separations at the border. He’s also vehemently opposed President Donald Trump’s push for a wall at the United States-Mexico border, saying the wall currently in place in El Paso has not worked and that he would prefer to tear it down.
“Children across this country are sleeping on concrete floors, under aluminum blankets tonight,” he said in his closing remarks. “We can’t return to the same old approach. ... That’s how we beat Donald Trump and bring this country together again.”
Last year, O’Rourke organized and led a 2,000-person Father’s Day march to a camp in Tornillo, Texas, to raise awareness of family separation and later brought a congressional delegation to tour the facility. He returned to the camp repeatedly until the facility was eventually shut down in January.
O’Rourke will be traveling Thursday to the Homestead detention center for migrant children, the largest shelter for unaccompanied minors in the country. He is set to meet with local leaders and activists who are leading the opposition to the camp.