Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

AQ Top 5 Border Ambassadors: Beto O’Rourke

Reading Time: 2 minutesThe U.S. congressman from El Paso who is trying to sell Washington on what the border is really like.
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CQ Roll Call

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This article is adapted from AQ’s special issue on the U.S.-Mexico relationship. To receive AQ at home, subscribe here.

Leer en español | See the rest of our AQ Top 5 Border Ambassadors

With a name like that, Beto O’Rourke’s story kind of tells itself.

Born “Robert” in El Paso, he, like most of the 2.7 million people in the greater El Paso-Ciudad Juárez area, spent his youth hopscotching between both cities. Friends’ birthday parties were in Mexico. So was his first date with his future wife. His dad, a county judge, spoke Spanish and owned a business in Juárez. So obviously, his given name never stood a chance.

Today a Democratic Party congressman representing El Paso, O’Rourke has made it his mission to show other Americans what the border is really like. This is a challenge in today’s climate, but his personal story helps. So do the facts: For example, El Paso and San Diego have consistently ranked as the safest cities of more than 500,000 people in the United States, according to CQ Press. Apprehensions of Mexican migrants are at their lowest level in nearly 50 years.

“The border has never been more secure by any measure,” O’Rourke told AQ. Asked why the opposite message propelled President Donald Trump to victory in 2016, he pauses. “I don’t consider this country to be inherently racist, (and) the people who voted for Donald Trump are not bad people,” he said. “They’re no better, no worse, than people who voted for Hillary Clinton, or people who didn’t vote at all.”

“So it has to be explained by a lack of familiarity and a lack of understanding of the border.”

O’Rourke has spent recent months touring both Texas and the halls of Congress to deliver that message (and to prepare for a challenge to Republican Senator Ted Cruz in 2018). It might sound preachy coming from other politicians, but O’Rourke has a light touch, befitting a 44-year-old who once played guitar in a punk band and who, in March, drove cross-country with a Republican colleague after a snowstorm canceled their flights back to Washington.

In such forums, O’Rourke talks less about legislation, and more about the Mexico he grew up around — the cafes of Avenida Juárez, the customs house where in 1909 William Howard Taft made the first trip to Mexico by a U.S. president. O’Rourke is confident that fear and xenophobia will dissipate. “But we can’t count on that,” he said. “We have to tell our story.”


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Winter is the editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly and a seasoned analyst of Latin American politics, with more than 20 years following the region’s ups and downs.

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
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