Former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke made his first foreign trip as a candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination Sunday, traveling over the southwestern border to Mexico to visit with migrants who said they fled violence and turmoil in Central America to seek asylum in the U.S. only to be turned away at the border.
According to a pool report put out by the O'Rourke campaign, the candidate spoke to a group of asylum seekers in Spanish for about 15 minutes at a restaurant in Ciudad Juarez, across the Rio Grande from O'Rourke's hometown of El Paso. The candidate then traveled to a shelter for migrants run by the Catholic Church, where he met around a table with migrants from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala who told of being denied entry into the U.S. and returned to the Mexican border city while their asylum claims were being processed.
O'Rourke's campaign livestreamed the discussion on his Facebook page.
"We hope, by sharing these stories, that the conscience of our country is awoken right now, and the need to change the policies that we have in place" becomes apparent, O'Rourke said on the stream. The 46-year-old blamed what he called "the Trump administration's unlawful 'Remain in Mexico' program," meant to reduce the attractiveness of U.S. asylum requests that in the past had allowed claimants to remain in the U.S. for years as their cases wound their way through the courts.
O'Rourke repeatedly has praised El Paso as part of the world's largest "binational" community with Juarez. Last month, he released a sweeping immigration plan calling for providing millions of people in the country illegally with a "pathway" to U.S. citizenship, while deploying thousands of lawyers to the border to help process asylum cases and earmarking $5 billion to improve living conditions in Central America.
Sunday's visit represented a bid by O'Rourke to re-establish his credentials on the immigration issue after clashing with fellow Texan Julian Castro during Wednesday's first presidential primary debate in Miami. Castro, a former Housing and Urban Development secretary and mayor of San Antonio, chided the ex-congressman for not being willing to fully decriminalize illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, at one point telling O'Rourke: "If you did your homework on this issue, you would know that we should be repealing this section [of law]."
O'Rourke has argued that doing so could result in drug- and people-smugglers being protected. He also notably was the first of a handful of candidates to answer debate questions in Spanish.
Later Sunday, O'Rourke staged a rally outside the U.S. Border Patrol facility in Clint, Texas, near El Paso, where immigrant children have reported being denied access to such basic amenities as showers, soap, and toothbrushes. Castro visited the same facility on Saturday.
A frequent visitor to Juarez before he began running for president in March, O'Rourke was there in December to meet with immigrants staying in shelters as they waited to start being processed for U.S. asylum.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.