During his official presidential campaign kickoff rally in El Paso over the weekend, Beto O’Rourke directly refuted President Trump’s view of the country’s Southern border.
O’Rourke made immigration a key part of his campaign – and offered his hometown as an alternative vision for what immigration should look like in the U.S.
“It was really important for me and Amy to launch this campaign from El Paso,” O’Rourke told supporters Saturday morning. “We are safe not despite the fact that we are a city of immigrants and asylum-seekers; we are safe because we are a city of immigrants and asylum-seekers.”
El Paso’s border with Mexico already had been the focus of national attention. In the days leading up to the rally, federal immigration officials said they were running out of resources to handle the influx of migrants, so they were barricading people under a bridge.
As a result, families were forced to live and sleep outside for several days as the government figured out what to do.
David Casillas, a disabled veteran living in El Paso, said he and his wife saw the pictures on TV and noticed there were a lot of children.
“It just broke our hearts because we have an eight-month-old,” he said. He said the couple didn't have much, but "whatever we got extra, we decided to come and donate to the immigrants.”
Casillas brought some extra baby food, clothing and blankets over to where Customs and Border Protection were keeping the families, but he was turned away. Instead, he would have to find a charity to donate the items to.
Casillas said the situation has been frustrating and he thinks the U.S. could do more to help people seeking help.
“Maybe we need to take a really good look at what we are doing and how we are doing it,” he said.
Immigration and the situation at the border were on the minds of a lot of people at O’Rourke’s rally. Susana Garcia, who lives in El Paso, said she’s concerned about the way the country is treating immigrants.
“I just think we could do so much more as a country,” she said. “I am not saying open the floodgates, but I think that there is room for everybody.”
Garcia pointed to El Paso as an example of that; she said immigrants work hard and have created a thriving community.
Rene Marquez, who also lives in El Paso, said immigrants are a big and important part of the city. In fact, he said, he thinks they are why El Paso is a nice place to live.
“We are very diverse here – friendly,” he said. “You know, a lot of people have said they’ve come to El Paso, and we are nice and humble and we help the people.”
Marquez said that's one reason he’s excited someone from El Paso is running for president. He said O’Rourke’s campaign is in a unique position to present an alternative vision of what life is like on the U.S.-Mexico border. While President Trump portrays cities like El Paso as dangerous places, he said, O’Rourke’s campaign can make a different case.
“It’s going to show something completely different,” he said. "We’ve always been one of the safest cities in America – and we still are.”
During his speech Saturday, O’Rourke told the crowd El Paso was his “inspiration in life” and his campaign. He said he thinks the city “represents America at its very best.”
“For more than 100 years, this community has welcomed generations of immigrants from across the Rio Grande – some having traveled hundreds of miles, some having traveled thousands of miles, trying to escape brutality, violence and crushing poverty – to find a better life in this country for themselves and for their kids,” he said. “That’s for sure.”
If elected, O’Rourke said, he would work to reunite families separated at the border by the Trump administration. He also pledged to help more people who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children –known as Dreamers – to get legal status.
And he said he wants the U.S. to go back to honoring existing asylum laws.
Katherine Jackson said she has mixed feelings about immigration, but she mostly agrees with O’Rourke.
“I don’t believe in having an open border,” she said. “I think if you are going to come here you definitely need to do it the right way, but you can still come here. … But this whole 'build a wall' – why do we need that? Why do we need to build a wall as a symbol of separation? We already have so much of that.”
Jackson said she didn’t always feel this way. She grew up in a conservative community in South Carolina and moved to El Paso only a few years ago.
Jackson said living in a community where immigrants are respected made a huge difference in how she sees the world. Now that a presidential candidate is running a campaign out of El Paso, she said, she hopes more people will change their views, too.
“I am not afraid to admit that I was a super hateful person,” she said. “I was extremely racist. I did not see the positivity in any other nationality being here. Living here changed my views drastically.”