Beto O’Rourke on Facing Our Country’s Challenges

We need smart, strategic, and compassionate leadership in our nation, O’Rourke tells a Tufts podcast

From 2013 to 2019, Beto O’Rourke represented the sixteenth Congressional district of Texas in the U.S. House of Representatives. In March 2017, he launched a historic campaign to represent Texas in the U.S. Senate. Running the largest grassroots campaign the state had ever seen, O’Rourke ultimately received more votes than any Democrat in Texas history. Now a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president, O’Rourke visited Tufts recently as a participant in a Presidential Town Hall hosted by the Tisch College of Civic Life.

For this episode of Tell Me More, our interviewers are Tufts students and young alumni who posed questions about the congressman’s stance on issues ranging from cybersecurity to universal health care to the humanitarian crisis at the U.S. southern border.

NICCI MATTEY: Hi, my name’s Nicci Mattey. I’m from San Antonio, Texas, and I was really proud that last year, I cast my first vote ever for you, as a senator in Texas. So, now that you’re vying for the presidency, I wanted to ask you a little bit more about your vision for comprehensive immigration reform. On stage, Secretary Castro challenged you to support the repeal of Section 1325, which you have thus far refused to do. So I wondered if you could elaborate. If that’s not the solution, what is the solution to the humanitarian crisis at our border?

BETO O’ROURKE: Yeah, thank you for the question. Thank you for the vote. Thank you for bringing some San Antonio love to Boston, and making that connection between Massachusetts and Texas.

No, 1325, which I co-sponsored legislation to rewrite when I was a member of Congress, so that we don’t criminalize anybody coming to this country seeking asylum or refuge or shelter—and if we think about it for a moment, and some here may be—or may have been that person—or have family members who were that person, you’re at your most desperate and vulnerable and defenseless—and there’s no reason in the world that we should put you in a cage. Or keep you in a cinderblock, concrete-floor cell, where you’re sleeping on that floor at night under a Mylar blanket. We should never separate you from your family. And we should do everything within our power as a country to reunite those families, especially those children who had been separated thus far.

So that’s an important step, and I want to make sure that we do that, but that is absolutely insufficient to the challenge that we have right now. There are 10 million here in this country, who are undocumented. More than a million we refer to as dreamers, really know no other country but this one—may not speak any other language but English. And if we send them back to a place where they no longer have friends or relatives or networks or any kind of connection, and against those long odds, they’re successful, they’ll be successful for that place, not this place.

I want them to reveal their true genius here in the United States. And that’s why I would want to make them U.S. citizens as soon as possible. Their parents, their sisters, their brothers—the millions more—working the toughest, the most backbreaking work available in the United States today. Imagine how much more they could do as legal, permanent residents, as U.S. citizens, living without fear of being deported. Even those who’ve been here for twenty and twenty-five years, have committed no crime, have given far more than they will ever be able to take back. Let’s recognize that by rewriting our laws in our own image, in the image of Boston, of El Paso, of San Antonio, of this country of asylum seekers and refugees and immigrants from the world over.

But, we’ve got to go steps further than those. We’ve got to go to Guatemala and El Salvador and Honduras. These countries that are producing so many of the asylum seekers that we see, who travel 2,000 miles, much of it on foot, some of it atop a train known as La Bestia, or the Beast, to come to this country in the first place. And let’s have the humility of acknowledging that no one wants to leave their country. As beautiful and amazing as America is most people want to stay where they were born, where they live, and they leave only because they have no other choice. When they themselves are hunted or they fear that their kids will be killed or raped or will starve to death—that moves them, just like it would move you, just like it would move me and Amy, if that were the only way to save our kids’ lives.

So, making sure that we accept these asylum seekers when they come here—do not ask them to remain in place in Mexico; in Ciudad Juárez alone, 13,000 people, who are not from Mexico, are forced to stay in Mexico, defenseless against those who prey on the most vulnerable in that country. But then also addressing the endemic poverty, and violence, and drought that we’re seeing in Central America—so much of which has a connection to this country.

In Guatemala, 1954, the United States led a coup that overthrew the democratically elected president Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán. In Nicaragua and El Salvador, in the 1970s and 1980s, we involved ourselves in their civil wars. In this country, four percent of the globe’s population—25 percent of its consumption of illegal drugs—those drugs have to pass through some countries, but they also bear the consequence and the price of our war on drugs, that has militarized their communities, and hollowed out their institutions of civil society.

So we have an opportunity and, I would argue, a responsibility, to do the right thing by and for those people in that country, either try to solve that problem here when they show up at our border, or help them where they are to be able to stay in those countries in the first place. Those are some of the steps I’d like to take.

DEEPEN GORADIA: Hi, Beto. My name is Deepen Goradia and I’m a sophomore from Princeton, New Jersey. So, really, regarding privacy and protecting the data rights of individuals, especially with the last election with Cambridge Analytica, and that data has now surpassed crude oil in value. Do you support federal legislation to protect people’s privacy, and how do you see yourself adapting to the ever-changing technological climate?

O’ROURKE: Thanks for asking the question. The answer is yes. Right now, we treat these social media platforms, for example, Facebook and Instagram and Twitter, like we would treat a utility, a common carrier that has no responsibility for what is delivered at the end of the pipe—the content that we receive. But we all know that the feeds that we scroll through are curated for us, are calculated to appeal to us and our willingness to click on something, and take some kind of action, or look at an advertisement, or make those platforms and their owners and investors and shareholders money.

We have become the product on these platforms. Our privacy, our photos, our interests, our likes, our dislikes are all traded—sometimes sold—without our knowledge or our consent. So I see these platforms more akin to a publisher than a utility. And the impunity with which they can act right now, the immunity from any kind of legal consequence or accountability or justice, leaves us in the breach. So I would change the way that they are treated. I would support federal legislation to do that. We would mandate that they change their user agreements with all of us—and the Russians who are on there with us, capitalizing on our likes and dislikes, our biases, and turning us against one another, as you said they did in 2016.

We would make sure that Cambridge Analytica—or their successor—could not illegally harvest our data and our personal information and use it for political ends here in this country or for some other third country, as they did. And we would make sure that this is vigorously enforced so that there are consequences… consequences that can be measured in the fines that are paid, consequences that can be measured in companies that, if they continue to act without regard to the public interest, will be stopped or broken up or forced to no longer be able to practice in the way that they are today.

MALCOLM ZUCKERMAN: Hello, my name is Malcolm Zuckerman. I’m a sophomore from Concord, Massachusetts. I was wondering where you think that our foreign policy focus as a country should be, especially in regards to adversarial relationships, coming into the next term?

O’ROURKE: We have the most pressing challenges that we have ever faced and number one among them is climate change. Ten years left to us, not as Democrats or Republicans or Americans, but just as humans on this planet, to get this right. And so every connection that we have with the rest of the world should be leveraged to address climate change. Even if we were to flick the switch in this country, if that switch existed, to stop emitting carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases, we’re only 16 percent of the globe’s contribution to the problem. So we need to be able to work with everyone else. And that means meetings like the one we were just at, at G7, where the president of the United States did not even show up at the conversation about the climate or the fact that the lungs of this planet are burning in the Amazon.

We would use meetings like those to leverage the power of all of the countries present to make sure that we do the right thing, not just for the First World, but for the southern half of the world that has borne the brunt of the First World’s inaction in the face of the facts. Everything that we know today in 2019, we knew in 1979 about what is happening to this planet and our contribution to it.

We again have culpability, responsibility, but also opportunity to lead. I would make sure, as we just suggested, that in Central America or other parts of the globe that are facing historic droughts or violence or civil war that you have American leadership. And wherever there is an open question about whether the future is a democratic or an autocratic one, we always solidly, strongly, unequivocally side with the former instead of the latter.

But right now, you have the president of the United States turning his back on our democratic allies and partners and friends, embracing strongmen, not just Vladimir Putin, who he invited into our election in 2016, and then apologized for once he was sworn in to office. But it is Duterte in the Philippines, el-Sisi in Egypt, Erdoğan in Turkey. And then in Saudi Arabia, Mohammad bin Salman is bombing the shit out of Yemen, into the last century, into the next humanitarian crisis on this planet. Seven million people are approaching mass starvation and dehydration on one of the most water-scarce countries on the planet today.

And the president of the United States not only looks the other way, but literally said out in the open, though they are doing this, though they murdered an American-based journalist with complete impunity, they buy billions of dollars in weapons and arms from this country, so we’ve got to keep doing business with them.

We’ve got to stand for something in this country, on that world stage, but it must, importantly, begin at home. And that means treating everyone in this country with the respect and dignity that they deserve, as human beings, and addressing that endemic racism that I talked about at the outset. So thanks for asking the question. Appreciate it.

WINONA: My name is Winona. I’m actually a recent alum and a cybersecurity researcher. So my question is surrounding the fact that individuals in my field are currently gearing up for monitoring presidential campaigns, and the threats on the cybersphere that may arise, not just from the Russians, but also from the Chinese and cybercriminals and even hacktivists. And so, given your history in one of the hacktivist groups that coined that phrase, as well as this current climate, what is your campaign doing to protect itself from these threats, and also how does that reflect on your cybersecurity policy for the United States, to defend organizations from foreign threats in cyberspace?

O’ROURKE: Look, I’m under no illusion about the dangers that we face in this country and in political campaigns. In particular, someone mentioned earlier Cambridge Analytica. There was a reference made to the Russian involvement in our elections in 2016. We know that that the phishing and cyberattacks—in our campaign, in the DNC, probably with the RNC, for that matter as well, perhaps leaders here at this institution—are a daily or a minute-by-minute threat against which we must be vigilant. It does not help when you have a president who still, to this day, will not acknowledge that that attack took place, will not command the leadership nationally that we need to make sure that we are safe from the next attack.

So, we’ve got to rely on the institutions that we have that are still working, despite the president’s best efforts to undermine them. We’ve got to be able to, on our own, make sure that we are conducting this campaign in the safest and yet strongest way possible. And, without going into details, we’ve adopted protocols to make sure that we’re protecting the data that we’re sharing within this campaign.

But we really need a commander-in-chief who is aware of the scope, the scale, the severity of this problem, and that it could very well not just undermine our elections—and that’s fundamental to our future as a democracy—but our military standing, our competitive advantage economically. Everything that makes America stand out in the world in the first place could be undermined and compromised by these breaches in security and our lack of resources and leadership to meet that challenge.

So, I want to acknowledge that I understand that is an ever-present threat, that it’s been unmet by this current president. As president, I will make sure that we have the resources, commensurate with that threat, and that we call it out, into the open, exactly what is happening… and that those countries who participate in these kinds of cyberattacks against the United States understand that there will be real consequences and accountability for their actions—again, something that we have failed to do under this administration.

JULIA:  Hi, I’m Julia. I’m a freshman here at Tufts. I know that you have endorsed a health-care plan called Medicare for America, instead of Medicare for All. Could you elaborate on what your plan would do and why it would be better than Medicare for All?

O’ROURKE: For the millions of our fellow Americans who have no insurance, no health care, no ability to see a doctor—for my fellow Texans, who with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and clinical depression, far too often, are getting arrested on purpose to be taken to the county jail—the one place they are guaranteed to get the care, the prescription to the psychotropic medication, the roof over their head, the warm meal that they otherwise would lack. The county jail system in Texas is the largest provider of mental health care services in Texas. The county jail in Harris County—home to Houston—is the largest inpatient provider of mental health care services. Those uninsured, unable to get care right now, would be automatically enrolled in Medicare and would not have to worry about it again. They could focus on being well: well enough to go to school, work a job, start a punk rock band, create a work of art, live to their full potential, as a human right.

Those who are insufficiently insured, meaning you can’t afford the copay and so you just don’t go to the doctor, you don’t fill the prescription—like the insured school teacher in Weatherford, Texas, who, in 2017, was diagnosed with the flu but didn’t fill her prescription for flu medication because she didn’t have $119 in her checking account, and died of the flu, in the United States of America, in 2017. She would be able to move over to Medicare, no questions asked, no copay for the medications, no copay for a primary care visit, no copay for a mental health care visit.

But those who have employer-sponsored insurance—including members of unions who fought for health-care plans that work for them and their families, sometimes plans in lieu of wage increases or other earned benefits—are able to keep them. So, we get to universal, guaranteed high-quality care. But we preserve choice and respect the decisions that our fellow Americans have made. And that means they now have primary care, mental health care. And it also means that every woman is able to make her own decisions about her own body and have access to the care that makes that possible. So that’s our plan for health care.

HOST: Thanks for listening to this episode of Tell Me More.

As part of the 2020 election season, the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life will host presidential candidates like Congressman O’Rourke for informal conversations with the Tufts community. These discussions are intended to promote civic dialogue on important issues and inform students, faculty, and staff about candidates’ platforms prior to the election. Please note: Tisch College is a nonpartisan institution and does not endorse any candidate.

Please subscribe and rate and review us wherever you get your podcasts—and to be the first to hear about new episodes, please follow Tufts University on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. We’d also welcome your thoughts on the series. You can reach us at That’s T-U-F-T-S dot E-D-U. Tell Me More is produced by Katie McLeod Strollo, Dave Nuscher, and Anna Miller. This episode was edited by 5 to 9 Media and Anna Miller. Web production and editing support provided by Taylor McNeil. Special thanks to the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life. Our theme music is sourced from De Wolfe Music. And my name is Patrick Collins. Until next time—be well.

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