Congressman Beto O'Rourke, the Democratic candidate challenging U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz for his seat, has so far resisted pressure from grassroots groups to call for abolishing the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. The agency has become a lightning rod under the Trump administration.
On Tuesday, he was confronted by an activist at a rally in Rosenberg, outside Houston.
"How can you sit there and say you are not for abolishing ICE when it is a terroristic organization?" asked a woman, who called herself an organizer in the Houston community.
KUT's Jennifer Stayton spoke to O'Rourke on his way to campaign in Austin on Wednesday. He said he is open to the idea of abolishing ICE practices, but not necessarily the agency itself.
Listen to their conversation:
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
O'Rourke: We should abolish the practices that we're seeing in our communities right now, where families are being torn apart, where kids are saying goodbye to their parents at the start of the day as their parents go to work and then are not seeing their parents at the end of the day, even though those parents have been working sometimes the toughest jobs in those communities here in our state and our country for five, 10, 15 years.
There has to be accountability for all law enforcement, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And we have to have immigration laws – and this is on Congress – that reflect our values and our interests. I don't think that abolishing any one department is going to solve all of these problems.
Stayton: You had said before that you might have been open to abolishing ICE and it sounds like now you're saying that is not a step –
O'Rourke: Look, I am open. I'm open to doing whatever it takes. If it's reorganizing the Department of Homeland Security and changing the functions of ICE, having greater accountability, abolishing that agency altogether, that's fine. But there will still have to be enforcement of our immigration laws in this country. So whether you want ICE to do it or you want to go back to Immigration and Naturalization Services, whether you want the Federal Bureau of Investigation to do that – someone is going to enforce our federal immigration laws in this country.
Stayton: If you were to step back and take a look at the immigration system as a whole, what is the primary problem right now as you see it?
O'Rourke: First and foremost, Congress has to take up the responsibility of rewriting our immigration laws to reflect the reality on the ground, to reflect our interests, to reflect our values. I've been in Congress for six years and the first vote that we had on immigration that happened to be around Dreamers was three weeks ago in those six years. We're afraid in what is purported to be the world's greatest deliberative body to have the debates and the discussions necessary to compromise that will entail between Democrats and Republicans to be able to move forward.
Stayton: So what would you want to see in new immigration legislation specifically?
O'Rourke: I would start by ensuring that Dreamers - more than a million across the country, almost 200,000 in the state of Texas - are immediately protected from deportation, and then on the same day, granted U.S. citizenship so that they can contribute to their full potential.
We already know that they're serving in the armed forces, that they're teaching our kids in our classrooms, that they are contributing to the success of this country, of our communities and the states in which we live. I want to make sure that they can contribute to their maximum potential as U.S. citizens. I do not want that to come at the price of their parents, the original Dreamers.
Stayton: So, specifically what else would you want to see in legislation?
O'Rourke: I mentioned the millions more who are working the most backbreaking, the toughest, the crappiest jobs in this country that no person born in the United States of America is willing to take right now. Those who came here by choice to provide for themselves and their families, those who are called to and inspired by this country, I want them to be able to be free from the fear of deportation, to be able to continue to contribute to the success of their communities, to be on an earned path to citizenship. I want to make sure that we continue to secure this country by making smart investments, such as those at our ports of entry.
Stayton: It seems like there are sort of two levels of discussion as this debate has been going on about current practices and family separations and some discussion about ICE, also. There's the operational side of things where some folks have said they're not interested in making major overhauls or changes to ICE without knowing what would come next and what other agencies might take up those systems.
But then there are other colleagues of yours, Democratic colleagues, who have said, "Yes, let's abolish ICE. This is reprehensible." And they've sort of made it into kind of a moral discussion, if you will, about these practices and what's happening. Are those colleagues of yours wrong to call for that specific action?
O'Rourke: No, they they're not wrong, and I think abolishing these practices and casting a light on these abuses and practices in our country, making sure that there's accountability and justice and that we change these policies through our laws is important. We could abolish HHS and ORR and CBP and DHS and ICE, or we could decide that we're going to change these practices, and we're going to also decide it's not as simple as saying that we want to change one agency.
So, listen, I'll work with those who want to abolish ICE, because I think the intent is noble and they're trying to get to the abuse that they're seeing that underlies that. I'll work with those who want to maintain ICE but reform it. I'll just make sure that at the end of the day that we make things better. I will not allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good.
Stayton: The Trump administration, in the area of immigration and in other areas, takes bold action, makes bold statements. There doesn't seem to be a lot of nuance or middle ground. Do you see this as an area where you're saying you'll work with your Republican colleagues, but do you see this as an area where there is common ground to be had?
O'Rourke: If we're not willing to compromise at some level, if we're not going to seek common ground, if we're not going to work on the basis of consensus, then we can be morally right and righteous all day long and get absolutely nothing done. I think it's incredibly important to lay out our principles, our vision. But it's just as important to get something done, to make things better than they are right now.
Stayton: Democratic Congressman Beto O'Rourke represents El Paso and is challenging GOP incumbent Ted Cruz for his Senate seat this fall. Congressman, thank you so much for your time today.
O'Rourke: Thank you, I really appreciate it.