HOMESTEAD, Florida — Beto O’Rourke stood outside the Homestead detention center for child immigrants in the sweltering Florida sun Thursday morning, strenuously fighting for his credibility on immigration after coming under attack on the issue the night before.
“We’ve got to comprehensively rewrite this country’s immigration laws,” he said, going over the details of his immigration policy and making frequent references to one of his breakthrough moments last year, when he led a protest at the “tent city” in Tornillo, Texas, where immigrant children were being held. The facility was closed soon after.
“That legal pressure really works,” he said, talking about Tornillo. “That same pressure must be brought to bear here.”
O’Rourke showed up at Homestead on the defensive after Wednesday night’s debate, where fellow Texan Julián Castro had gone after the former member of Congress specifically for releasing an immigration plan that Castro said “does not protect those children” separated from their parents by US officials at the border. Castro and Sen. Elizabeth Warren both released plans that propose decriminalizing crossing the border into the US, a step O’Rourke does not include in his plan.
Surrounded by a throng of activists and reporters on Thursday, O’Rourke talked at length in Spanish about wanting to reform US politics toward a more compassionate immigration system.
“It’s wrong,” he said in response to the criticism that it’s not possible to actually do that without decriminalizing border crossings, later adding, “I think we want to get to the same place, and I think Secretary Castro may not understand … that our proposal calls for every family, every person, who is seeking refuge or asylum, fleeing violence or persecution, to be welcomed through our asylum laws.”
“My immigration policy, one that follows legislation that I cosponsored in Congress says that no family, no child, no woman, no man, who is seeking asylum or refuge in this country will be criminally prosecuted. It’s not a criminal offense,” he said, talking about legislation he cosponsored in the House that sought to rewrite the law — which allows the government to criminally prosecute people crossing the border — so that it would not apply to most asylum-seekers.
“But I also wanted to call our attention to the larger opportunity, which is to completely rewrite our immigration laws,” he said.
Shortly after O’Rourke’s visit to Homestead, his deputy communications director Rob Friedlander tweeted that “Beto has led ... his entire career” on immigration and that “President Trump would love nothing more than for Democrats to muddy the waters to score political points on this issue,” a response that seemed clearly aimed at Castro.
“So what about section 1325 -- a law that makes it a crime to enter the country without following our rules? Beto has always believed this law needs to be rewritten. That’s why Beto worked to overhaul that provision by fighting for the Keep Families Together Act,” Friedlander wrote.
O’Rourke said he doesn’t support more broadly decriminalizing border crossings because of concerns about human trafficking. Castro argues there because there are already other laws in place that specifically allow authorities to prosecute human traffickers and people smugglers, just decriminalizing crossing for asylum-seekers does not go far enough.
On Wednesday night Castro told the former House representative, “If you did your homework on this issue you would know that we should repeal this section.”
“Your policy would still criminalize a lot of these families. Your policy would still criminalize them because it does not call for the repeal of Section 1325,” Castro told O’Rourke, adding that the law is “the reason that they’re separating these little children from their families.”
The line of attack was a breakout moment for Castro but also may have particularly hit close to home for O’Rourke because he hails from El Paso and has a firsthand understanding of what the humanitarian crisis on the border looks like.
Activists at the Homestead facility said they were happy O’Rourke and other candidates were drawing attention to the issue by visiting while they’re in the area. And while some said they didn’t think he did as well as Castro on the immigration question during the debate, they thought he was genuine and well-spoken about his immigration plan during his visit to the facility.
“He was much more impressive today than he was last night,” said Elizabeth Heise, a member of the Interfaith Taskforce, a group that’s been visiting Homestead and advocating for children held there. “He does better alone.”
The Homestead facility, the largest child immigrant detention center in the country, mostly holds detained teenagers, according to the Trump administration. The administration has admitted that children are held for much longer than the 20 days permitted under federal law. Lawyers and advocates say conditions in the detention center are dire.
O’Rourke was among the first of the 2020 candidates to say he would go — but he ended up being the fourth candidate to arrive this week as campaigns started to pick up the idea that immigration was going to be an unavoidable theme in Miami, particularly in the wake of several stories this week detailing inhumane conditions in detention facilities and the dangerous journey immigrants trying to get to the US undertake.
A photograph of Salvadoran father Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 2-year-old daughter Valeria, who drowned trying to cross the Rio Grande after waiting for months to apply for asylum at the southern border, was referenced several times during Wednesday night’s debate, and again by candidates visiting Homestead throughout the week.
“We saw that image yesterday of Oscar and Valeria. They didn’t make a more than 1,000-mile journey and try to cross the Rio Grande river to try to take somebody’s job or benefits or try to steal something from us — they did it because they had no other option but to come to this country,” O’Rourke said outside Homestead on Thursday.