Editor’s Note: Beto O’Rourke is one of 10 presidential candidates taking part in a Democratic debate Tuesday, July 30, at 8:00 p.m. ET, on CNN. Ten others will debate on Wednesday evening. He is a former US representative from Texas. The views expressed are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
In early July, my wife, Amy, and I rode the ferry from the bottom of Manhattan to Ellis Island. We visited the Great Hall, where waves of huddled masses, recently disembarked from long, transatlantic voyages, finally began to breathe a little more freely. On The American Immigrant Wall of Honor, we found the name of James Francis O’Rourke, who very well could have been one of my ancestors. And looking out at the Statue of Liberty, we were reminded that America always has been, and always will be, a nation of immigrants.
One reason we were so moved by our visit is because, in many ways, my hometown of El Paso is the Ellis Island of today. We are the largest binational community in the Western Hemisphere, the place where millions of people who become Americans first set foot in our country. A quarter of our neighbors were born in another country. Every day, we are made stronger – and yes, safer – by the immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers who make us so proud to call El Paso our home.
Living on the US-Mexico border, we know immigration isn’t about politics. It’s about people—not just those who have recently arrived or those yet to come, but the kind of people we choose to be as Americans.
Right now, our President is choosing to make us a nation defined by cruelty. In detention centers and border patrol stations from Homestead, Florida to Clint, Texas – a short drive from my home – President Donald Trump’s policies are destroying the lives of those seeking refuge, safety, and freedom in our country. Eight-year-old kids are taking care of toddlers in conditions tantamount to torture. Sleeping on cold concrete floors, with foil-like blankets. Hungry and thirsty, no toothbrushes or soap. Unable to sleep because the lights stay on all night.
Under the Trump administration, seven children have lost their lives in US custody.
And the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy has resulted in thousands of families being separated, including, according to a report by the House Oversight Committee, at least 18 migrant infants and toddlers being separated from their parents for up to six months.
This is the same administration that has deported over 450 parents, leaving behind children.
The same administration that has shut the door on thousands of women, men and children fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries—only to face more violence and persecution when they’re turned away.
No human being, let alone a child, should be subject to these conditions—especially in one of the wealthiest, most powerful countries on the face of the planet.
These kids will carry this trauma for the rest of their lives. We’ll carry it on our conscience for the rest of ours.
It’s long past time for us to rewrite our immigration and naturalization laws in our own image, to reflect our values as a nation of immigrants and a nation of laws.
That’s what I’ve fought for my whole career. Even when it was unpopular, in 2009, I stood up to Democrats and Republicans alike who wanted to militarize the border. In 2018, I organized a protest of hundreds against family separation at the Tornillo detention facility, returning again and again until it was shut down. And I co-sponsored the Keep Families Together Act—which would ban family separation by rewriting Section 1325 of the US Code to ensure that asylum seekers and refugees are never subject to criminal prosecution for crossing the border.
As President, I would use my executive authority on day one to end detention for those who pose no threat to our communities, reunite families that have been torn apart, and ensure family separation never happens again. I would reform our asylum system, rescind the travel and asylum bans, and remove the fear of deportation for Dreamers, their families and others here under protective status. And we would get to work building a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented people and make naturalization easier for the 9 million immigrants who are currently eligible for citizenship.
We will do all of that while still respecting the fact that we are a country with borders. That means preserving tools that allow us to go after smugglers and traffickers—because that will make everyone who lives in America safer, including immigrants.
Throughout our history, we have faced a series of pivotal moments—when we’ve had to decide whether we would surrender to our worst instincts or uphold our highest ideals.
This is one of those moments. In the face of the most divisive and dangerous President this country has ever had, we must choose to be our better selves and remember that, for 243 years strong, asylum seekers, immigrants, and refugees—arriving on the shores of Ellis Island and in the desert of El Paso—have helped make the United States of America the greatest country the world has ever known.