1 of 19
David J. Phillip
Supporters of Democratic presidential candidate and former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke hold up flags before the start of his presidential campaign kickoff rally in Houston, Saturday, March 30, 2019. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

EL PASO, Texas — Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke declared that immigrants make the country safer as he staged rallies across Texas to formally kick off his 2020 White House bid, looking to shore up his deeply conservative home state and champion the U.S.-Mexico border at a time when President Donald Trump has threatened to shut it.

The former congressman, who represented El Paso for three House terms until last year, began the day Saturday addressing 1,000-plus supporters in his hometown , across the border from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. He later spoke at historically black Texas Southern University in Houston, before finishing with a late-night Austin event, addressing a large crowd a stone's throw from the pink-granite state Capitol.

Bounding onto a makeshift El Paso stage in a blue button-down shirt to The Clash's "Clampdown," O'Rourke declared: "We are safe, not despite the fact that we are a city of immigrants and asylum seekers. We are safe because we are a city of immigrants and asylum seekers."

"We have learned not to fear our differences, but to respect and embrace them," he told a crowd that waved small American flags and black-and-white signs reading "Viva Beto" while often interrupting their candidate to chant his first name. O'Rourke also spoke at length in Spanish, eliciting loud and sustained cheers.

In a series of tweets Friday, Trump warned he could close the U.S. southern border next week "if Mexico doesn't immediately stop ALL illegal immigration coming into the United States." In later comments to reporters he added: "We'll keep it closed for a long time. I'm not playing games."

O'Rourke has made promoting the border as culturally rich and economically powerful the centerpiece of his campaign and spoke on a downtown street corner a few blocks from it. He decried federal officials' recent decisions to hold people who crossed into the U.S. to seek asylum "in cages" under El Paso's international bridge, saying those detainees "are our fellow human beings and deserve to be treated as our fellow human beings."

O'Rourke entered the race March 14 and already has visited nine states, but had promised to return to El Paso for an official kickoff.

As he has previously, he renewed calls to work with Republicans and Democrats, saying "before anything else, we are Americans first" and prompting chants of "USA! USA!" But he also made bolder predictions than in the past, saying that if his campaign can bring people from across the ideological spectrum together he can top the rest of the crowded Democratic 2020 presidential field and "defeat Donald Trump."

A small but vocal group of El Paso Trump supporters had other ideas, gathering a few blocks away from the event to shout anti-O'Rourke sentiments for hours.

O'Rourke represented the city in Congress for six years, but gave up his seat while nearly upsetting Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in November. The Democrat who replaced him in the House, Rep. Veronica Escobar, welcomed those on hand to the "beautiful, magical, safe and secure U.S.-Mexico border," adding, "When the border sends America her people, we are sending them our best in Beto O'Rourke."

Amy O'Rourke, who has largely avoided the spotlight since her husband began running for president, gave a short speech too, telling the crowd, "Listening to people is what gives Beto strength. It fuels him and it gives him context (with) which he can think about policies and the things he wants to do for this great country."

Despite such nods to bipartisanism, however, O'Rourke offered many positions Saturday that were liberal enough to make moderates nervous. He vowed to legalize marijuana nationally, defend abortion rights, sign new sweeping voting rights legislation to end partisan gerrymandering and allow automatic and same-day voter registration, institute federally financed, universal pre-kindergarten programs, strengthen unions and bring home all troops from the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He also renewed his support for a House proposal called "Medicare for America," which he says will guarantee universal health care coverage while allowing people who like getting insurance through their employer to continue doing so.

O'Rourke hit many of the same points hours later in Houston, but recalled a school shooting near that city last year to advocate for nationwide federal background checks on firearms purchases. He added that assault weapons "sold to the United States military with the sole purpose of killing people as effectively, as efficiently and in as great a number as possible" should be "kept on the battlefield" and not "sold into our communities."

Addressing thousands and wearing a Texas Southern baseball cap, O'Rourke also recalled the devastation in Houston of 2017's Hurricane Harvey, saying the U.S. must do more to combat climate change and that the nation's fourth-largest city understands the phenomenon's dangers "better than just about anyone in this country."

Concluding in Austin, he called that city's liberal politics "the center and the source of so much of what is good for Texas and for the United States of America."

6 comments on this story

Texas hasn't elected a Democrat to statewide office in 25 years. But O'Rourke came within 3 percentage points of topping Cruz, and his party is hoping that a booming Hispanic population and large numbers of new residents moving in from other states could keep Texas close in 2020 — potentially reshaping the electoral college. California Sen. Kamala Harris drew a large crowd last weekend when she too visited Texas Southern.

"This state and its 38 electoral votes count like they've never counted before," O'Rourke said in El Paso. "All of us matter."