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Beto O’Rourke carefully threads needle on border policy as Democrats grapple with the issue

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke holds a press conference in Mission on Nov. 17, 2021.
Eddie Gaspar
The Texas Tribune
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke holds a press conference in Mission on Nov. 17, 2021.

For Democrats, especially in Texas, tackling border issues is difficult on the campaign trail as the party is not in agreement about various policies. O’Rourke has had to distance himself from President Joe Biden’s border policies, while going after Gov. Greg Abbott’s.

Beto O’Rourke had called for an end to Title 42 for months.

He said the emergency health order from the federal government, which allows officials to turn away migrants at the border to control spread of COVID-19, was ineffective and has led to mass repeat crossings which overwhelm an already overworked Border Patrol staff.

But earlier this week, O’Rourke raised some eyebrows. He called on the White House not to end the health order until it had laid out a plan to help border communities deal with the increase of migrants expected after its end in May.

O’Rourke’s comment confused and confounded some immigrant advocates who are typically on his side.

“[Beto O’Rourke], buddy, Border Patrol processed 10,000 Ukrainians in a week!” tweeted RAICES, the Texas nonprofit that provides immigration legal services. “Should they have waited in Mexico while you try and figure out a plan for them?”

Mario Carrillo, the campaigns manager for the progressive pro-immigration group America’s Voice, said it sounded like O’Rourke wanted to keep Title 42 in place.

“If his position is that we should eliminate Title 42 — and he has expressed that before … we certainly support him in that,” Carrillo said. “I think it’s important that Democrats are clear on the fact that Title 42 has not worked and it, in fact, has led to more chaos.”

O’Rourke has since clarified that he firmly supports ending the pandemic-era health order, even as his opponents have cast him as a flip-flopper. But the responses to his position illustrate the challenge O’Rourke faces as he tries to take on the issues of border security and immigration, which have taken center stage throughout his run for Texas governor.

For Gov. Greg Abbott, the border is an easy issue to campaign around, as it regularly ranks as the top priority for Texas voters, especially Republicans. Abbott has for months focused his political capital on the border, initiating construction of a state-funded border wall, deploying thousands of members of the Texas National Guard and most recently, requiring state inspections of commercial vehicles passing into Texas, which has snarled trade with Mexico.

But for Democrats, especially in Texas, tackling these issues is more difficult. O’Rourke has had to distance himself from President Joe Biden’s border policies, while going after Abbott’s.

“I’m from the border. I understand this,” said O’Rourke, who is from El Paso and represented the area in Congress for six years. “The people from Texas understand this and I know that we're all looking for a real solution. We’re not getting it from Greg Abbott. We’re not getting it from the Biden administration either. What we need is leadership.”

Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University, said Republicans have an advantage in talking about border security because the majority of their party agrees that there should be stricter enforcement. But among Democrats, there is a wider variety of thought. Some Democrats on the border want to be tougher on the issue, but there are many in the party’s coalition who advocate for more humane treatment of migrants and against any stricter enforcement of immigration laws.

In his recent comments, O’Rourke is trying to advocate for both, which is a difficult message to pull off, Jillson said.

“His message is about as good as it can be for a Democrat but it's complex and has to be explained in a couple of paragraphs, and by that time people get confused and they're not sure exactly what you said,” Jillson said. “The ideal policy position for a political race is bumper sticker in length where people can understand you by the third word and are nodding with you.”

Biden is doing O’Rourke no favors. Polls show the president remains unpopular in Texas, and often his approval rating among voters on the border is worse than his overall approval rating.

Only 31% of Texas voters approved of Biden’s handling of the border in a mid-February poll from the Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Tyler. Fifty-six percent disapproved. Meanwhile, 50% of voters approved of Abbott’s performance on the border and 40% disapproved.

On the first day of his campaign, O’Rourke gave a TV interview criticizing Biden on the border, saying it is “not enough of a priority for his administration.” But the border was otherwise not a large part of his first weeks as a gubernatorial candidate. He did not mention the topic in his launch video, and his stump speeches often centered on other, less polarizing issues, like expanding Medicaid and legalizing marijuana.

But in late December, O’Rourke took an interest in the failures of Abbott’s highly touted border mission, Operation Lone Star, where military news outlets were reporting pay problems and suicides that appeared tied to the mission.

“Gov. Abbott is the commander-in-chief of the Texas National Guard. If he chooses to deploy those under his command, it is his duty to pay them, deliver the benefits he promised them, and ensure they receive proper mental health support in order to prevent the kind of tragedy we’ve seen in recent months,” he wrote in an op-ed to El Paso Matters. “And if he can’t justify their deployment, he owes it to them and their families to send them home.”

O’Rourke has continued to hammer Abbott over Operation Lone Star and has also criticized as political stunts his decision to bus migrants to Washington, D.C., and bring international trade to a halt through commercial vehicle inspections. On Friday, Abbott announced he’d made agreements with the last of the four Mexican governors whose land borders Texas to bring the inspections to an end.

But Abbott’s team has hit right back. This week, the governor’s campaign blasted O’Rourke for his change of tune on Title 42.

“Beto continues to take different positions on issues depending on which part of the state he happens to be in,” Abbott campaign spokesperson Mark Miner said in a statement. “‘Both Ways Beto’ strikes again!”

O’Rourke has said he wants to support Border Patrol agents who are seeing large numbers of migrants at the border by working together with law enforcement agencies in border communities. But he also wants them to work with nonprofits that aid migrants and to make it easier for asylum-seekers to go through the process.

He’s also suggested pushing for a guest worker program at the national and federal level and said border issues shouldn’t be limited to immigration. He wants to provide economic development to border regions by investing in infrastructure to facilitate the kind of international trade that has been stalled by Abbott’s order to inspect every commercial vehicle that crosses the ports of entry.

Republicans scoff at the idea that O’Rourke can gain anything politically from the border in the current environment. Those Republicans include former U.S. Rep. Will Hurd of Helotes, a moderate who went on a famous road trip with O’Rourke in 2017. When he was in Congress, Hurd represented a district that covered hundreds of miles of Texas-Mexico border.

Hurd flatly said no Tuesday when asked after an appearance in San Antonio whether Abbott was giving O’Rourke an opening to compete on border issues due to some of Abbott’s policies.

“The Republicans are going to have near — if not record — turnout in Latino communities because Democrats have been absolutely idiotic when it comes to border security,” Hurd said.

Hurd said that after the midterms, Republicans could control as many as four out of the five congressional seats on the Texas-Mexico border. One of them is already held by a Republican, Rep. Tony Gonzales of San Antonio, while national Republicans are targeting three more in November.

“It’s unprecedented,” Hurd said, “and so no Democratic official at any level in this next cycle is going to be able to use the issue of border security in their favor.”

In taking on border issues so prominently, O’Rourke is trying to change the narrative around his party and set out his vision for how Texas Democrats should tackle the issue with himself as the leading voice, said Sharon Navarro, a political scientist at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

But that is a difficult task in a Democratic Party that is stubbornly divided over border security.

“The Democrat border stance can't be ‘You all come,’” said Jillson. “There has to be more nuance to it, but that nuance then draws criticism from the part of the Democratic coalition most concerned about immigrant rights.”

Some South Texas Democrats, like U.S. Reps. Henry Cuellar of Laredo and Vicente Gonzalez of McAllen, had urged Biden to keep Title 42 in place. State Rep. Eddie Morales of Eagle Pass — a Democrat who represents the largest stretch of the border in the House — also opposes the end of Title 42.

In the top Democratic primary runoff this May in South Texas — for the 15th Congressional District — the candidates disagree on Title 42. Michelle Vallejo has advocated against it, while Ruben Ramirez has said it is “premature” to end it.

O’Rourke has emphasized he is listening to local leaders when it comes to border issues. But what about the South Texas Democrats who disagree with him on Title 42?

“I’m reaching out to them,” O’Rourke said in a recent interview, naming Morales as one of the people he was talking to. “Even though he and I are both from border communities, there’s a lot I can learn from him about Eagle Pass and about Del Rio … and we may not agree on every given policy proposal, but we both agree that we want to see border rule of law, people who come to this country following our laws and then we would love to see the country take the lead in rewriting our laws” on immigration.

Texas Democrats, though, cannot even agree there is a problem on the border — and if there is, the extent of it.

“There was no ‘border crisis’ until Governor Abbott went and created one himself,” state Rep. Erin Zwiener of Dripping Springs said in a tweet Thursday that was later deleted.

Ramirez, the congressional candidate, told a local media outlet that “we have an immigration crisis and we need to be honest with ourselves and call it what it is.”

O’Rourke himself has avoided labeling the situation a “crisis” and has said National Guard troops are being sent to address “a solution in search of a problem.” Abbott’s campaign has highlighted that comment in near-daily news releases this month under the headline, “Beto’s Big Border Denial.”

And in an interview, he said he disagrees with the notion that Democrats are divided over the issue and said voters appreciate a nuanced policy.

“That’s part of the problem we have with American politics,” he said. “So many people assume that voters are dumb. I don’t. They’re very smart [and are] looking for real answers. They want real answers and real solutions.”