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Congressmen Are Bullish On The Borderlands



We begin our next story with the sound of a parade this month in Brownsville, Texas.


MARTIN: Thousands of people watched the parade in that border city. Naturally, politicians attended too - including the candidates for Texas governor. The Republican candidate is campaigning for tighter border security.

Concern about security is widespread, as we heard yesterday on WEEKEND EDITION from a Texas rancher. But not all politicians hold that view. Consider the congressman who met Steve Inskeep during NPR's road trip along the entire U.S.-Mexico frontier.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: We met him in El Paso Texas at H&H Car Wash.


INSKEEP: As the name implies, it's a car wash, but it's also a coffee shop where a cook was chopping a giant pile of jalapenos.


INSKEEP: Here we had breakfast with El Paso Congressman Beto O'Rourke. He arrived alone, having dropped off his truck for a wash. Maynard Hadad, the car wash owner, introduced us.

MAYNARD HADAD: So I'm fired up, you know, God's been good to me.


HADAD: I love this guy. His politics sucks, but he's a great person.

INSKEEP: What sucks about his politics?

HADAD: Well, you know, he wants to legalize marijuana but do away with smoking.

INSKEEP: Congressman O'Rourke really does want to legalize marijuana, though that's not the main issue he discussed over juevos con chorizo - eggs and sausage. He wants Americans to rethink the border.

REPRESENTATIVE BETO O'ROURKE: Right now, at least it takes being on the border - living here or spending a significant amount of time here - to understand all the positive dynamics of it. And when you do that I think you realize that the opportunities far outweigh the threats.

INSKEEP: He'd rather focus on improving cross-border commerce. The congressman told us he would even be willing to move some Border Patrol security away from his district. He opposes a Senate plan to double the size of the Border Patrol.

O'ROURKE: Which, in my opinion, is a very irrational, almost emotional and certainly fiscally irresponsible response to a problem that we really don't have.

INSKEEP: O'Rourke is in some ways, characteristic of border congressmen right now. Though Texas is a conservative state, the immediate border region tends to be younger, more Hispanic, more Democratic.

Across Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, a total of nine congressional districts touch the border. Democrats hold eight. Most are freshmen, including Beto O'Rourke. His father was also an El Paso politician. The family is Anglo, as his last name implies, but Robert O'Rourke picked up the common Spanish nickname Beto and speaks Spanish. Beto O'Rourke's name is not so unusual in a city where people have been crossing the border for generations.

O'ROURKE: There was a guy who worked for me for awhile named Paco O'Dell. You know, his mom was from Chihuahua. His dad had Irish roots. A really popular restaurant in El Paso is Paco Wong, a Chinese-Mexican confluence.

INSKEEP: And once his truck was washed, the congressman drove us through his city, which he says is misunderstood. He recalled a day when he was playing baseball with fellow congressmen in Washington.

O'ROURKE: I was throwing the ball around with a guy in the outfield and he said what'd you do this weekend? I said, well, I was campaigning for a friend of mine who was running for mayor in El Paso. And he said, who would want to be mayor of El Paso? Isn't that the most dangerous city in the world?


O'ROURKE: And no matter, like, every sentence I speak in Congress begins with El Paso is the safest city, you know, in the country. That's still the impression of a lot of people.

INSKEEP: El Paso really does have the lowest crime rate of any large U.S. city. It just seems dangerous because Juarez, Mexico is across the Rio Grande - Juarez, which had thousands of killings a few years ago. Fences and the Border Patrol guard the river between the two cities, though the congressman was driving us to one place still relatively open.

O'ROURKE: And we're driving to where, in 1598, Don Juan de Onate crossed into present day El Paso into the United States.

INSKEEP: A park at the border commemorates that moment of Spanish discovery.

You want to hop out for a minute?

O'ROURKE: Yeah, do you all have a second to do that?


INSKEEP: The park was piled high with concrete and steel. It is now a construction staging ground for building a new section of border fence, which will block the view across the channel into Juarez.

O'ROURKE: We're looking at bread trucks, school buses, daily life in Ciudad, Juarez. We will not be able to see this after this fence is constructed. Which is too bad, and really fails to capitalize on what's I think truly unique and interesting about El Paso Juarez.

INSKEEP: Do you mean people are not just kind of going across the culvert, which hardly has any water in it, going up been berm and coming into the United States? People are not doing that?

O'ROURKE: Certainly, there are still apprehensions taking place in the sector. But we've looked at the apprehension data for the last four years and it is every single year decreasing by significant amounts.

INSKEEP: El Paso's congressman compared Juarez, the city across the river, to 19th-century Chicago - big, industrial, and dangerous - but developing enormous potential; something to embrace.

MARTIN: And on tomorrow on MORNING EDITION, Steve Inskeep crosses into that city of Juarez, as he continues a road trip through the borderland. It was the world's most violent city. We'll ask what's happening now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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