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Rep. O'Rourke's Counterpoint To Trump's New Immigration Policies


Let's hear a counterpoint to President Trump's new immigration policies. The administration has widened the range of people who may be targeted for deportation. It has also called for an increase in border forces to help make that happen. Representative Beto O'Rourke represents a part of the border. He's on the Texas-Mexico border right now. He's a Democrat from El Paso. He is now on the line from Laredo, Texas, which is a border city.

Congressman, welcome back to the program.

BETO O'ROURKE: Good morning. Thanks for having me on.

INSKEEP: And we'll mention you're a Democrat and that you've been an advocate of immigration reforms of a different kind. How big a change is the administration move?

O'ROURKE: It's pretty big in terms of adding 15,000 new agents between ICE and Border Patrol, walling off the border - 2,000 miles - between the United States and Mexico. In making every single unauthorized immigrant in this country a priority through this order, you're doing something that I haven't seen in my lifetime. And I think you have to go back to President Eisenhower's administration after World War II to find this level of immigration roundup and this dramatic a change from how we've been enforcing our immigration laws.

INSKEEP: Now, let me just note you're correct that actually Eisenhower's administration did do a mass deportation. But let's check what's actually happening here. The administration is saying this is not a mass deportation at the moment and that they're not making every single immigrant a priority. For example, they've said the so-called Dreamers, people brought to the United States as young people, aren't going to be prioritized. Is everyone, all 11 million, really at risk?

O'ROURKE: I think so. The way that the memo from DHS Secretary Kelly is written, it is vague enough that one could interpret just about anyone in this country with the exception, thankfully, of Dreamers. And there's a little clause excepting them in one of the memos. But for everyone else, this is creating intense anxiety and fear in communities like ours in El Paso, Texas, or in Laredo or in communities deeper into the interior.

You already have, in El Paso, folks canceling court dates for fear that if they show up, they will be apprehended and deported. And when that happens, our communities become less safe. El Paso's the safest city in America today in part because every part of our community, including undocumented immigrants, feels comfortable working with local law enforcement and our court system. When, after this order, sheriff's deputies and El Paso police officers become deputized federal immigration enforcement officers, you're not going to have that cooperation. You're not going to have immigrants coming forward to report crimes or testify, serve as witnesses in trials. That's going to make this country, our community and the state of Texas less, not more, safe.

INSKEEP: So far as you know, are local authorities in and around El Paso and your congressional district going to cooperate with this and allow themselves to be deputized as immigration enforcement officers, as you mentioned?

O'ROURKE: You know, I hope not. Traditionally, El Paso has seen the greater public safety good in ensuring that we can work with everyone in the community, including undocumented immigrants. Our sheriff, Richard Wiles, has been incredibly powerful and eloquent on this topic, saying that you may have a unique, singular deportation opportunity, but it might go against the broader general public good in keeping this community safe. And I think the facts speak for themselves. We were the safest city in America last year, and we have been for the four or five years preceding that. Laredo, the city that I'm in today, is pretty safe. San Diego's the second safest city. They all have in common large immigrant communities in those cities that feel comfortable working with law enforcement.

Yesterday's memo from DHS Secretary Kelly significantly undermines that, will make us less safe at an expense of tens of billions of dollars, unnecessarily spending money on a border that has never been more safe than it is today when we have real threats and concerns facing this country in other places. And so I'd argue that this is unnecessary, makes us less safe, spends a lot of taxpayer resources when they could be better placed in other parts of the country.

INSKEEP: Congressman O'Rourke, I want to mention that there is an area on which this administration agrees with the previous administration. And it's the idea that criminal aliens, as they're called, people who've committed crimes, should be removed. The Obama administration made that a priority. What's different, from what we can tell from these memos, is that the Trump administration has widened the definition of who counts as a criminal alien, who's a priority. People who've committed minor offenses can now be targeted. Why is that a concern?

O'ROURKE: Well, because you go from searching for people in the hundreds of thousands in this country, as we did under the Obama administration, to trying to apprehend people in the millions throughout almost every single community in this country. That's going to drive people further into the shadows, make them more reluctant to work with law enforcement and not resolve the underlying issue, which is that we need comprehensive immigration reform.

I've been in Congress now going on my fifth year, and Republican Speaker Boehner and now Republican Speaker Ryan have refused to allow an immigration reform bill to come before us to vote. I know that if it did, it would pass. There are enough Democrats and Republicans who would vote for that. So you can try an enforcement-only approach, as the Trump administration is doing. Or you can get at the underlying issues, as I think the American people want us to do, so we need to be focused on that.

INSKEEP: You mentioned Speaker Ryan. Speaker Ryan is touring the border. That's something that's coming up in the coming days. And of course, he's a Republican. You're a Democrat. But it's not entirely clear that Republicans in Congress are on exactly the same page as the president of the United States. Is it your sense that Congress is going to be providing the funding that the president would need for extra border patrol agents, for example?

O'ROURKE: Well, the reason we don't know where the Republicans are and where the speaker is on these issues - whether it's these draconian immigration policies, whether it was the refugee ban that was proposed by the president - is because they have been silent on these issues. And their silence makes them complicit in what I think is going to be one of the more shameful chapters in American history.

We want to make this chapter as short as possible and remind people that our best traditions involve accepting asylees, refugees, those who are fleeing terror and violence like the young immigrants fleeing Central America. This new proposal yesterday would have us turn our backs on those asylum-seekers and ask the country of Mexico, that the president's been trying to humiliate, to warehouse young children fleeing Central America coming to the U.S. We have the lowest northbound apprehension levels in modern history, and many of them are little kids fleeing El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. So this is a solution in search of a problem that we just don't have today.

INSKEEP: Congressman, thanks for taking the time. I really appreciate it.

O'ROURKE: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Beto O'Rourke of El Paso, Texas - representative of El Paso talking with us from Laredo this morning. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.