The politics of the southern border have, for many years, been dominated by fear-peddling voices from elsewhere. Congressmen from Iowa or Colorado, sheriffs from Phoenix or Milwaukee, Presidential candidates from Fifth Avenue—they all have used the border as a metaphor for division and racial purity. Along the border itself—in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, or California—it’s always been easy enough to find a local sheriff or mayor to dismiss the rhetoric of chaos and racial panic. But there were few national figures who could speak about the border from firsthand experience.
On Monday night, Beto O’Rourke, the former congressman from El Paso whose failed bid to unseat Senator Ted Cruz, in November, has done little to quell speculation that he will run for President in 2020, spoke at a march in El Paso designed to counter the pro-border-wall rally that President Trump was holding in town. In a speech that sounded every bit a Presidential-campaign stump speech, O’Rourke went beyond rejecting Trump’s wall and calling for more funding for ports of entry or “smart” technologies such as drones—the standard Democratic line at this moment. He spoke of the border as a transnational place. “Here, in the largest binational community in the Western Hemisphere,” O’Rourke said, speaking of El Paso and its neighbor, Ciudad Juárez, “two and a half million people, two countries, speaking two languages, with two cultures, and two histories, who come together—are joined, not separated—by the Rio Grande river, forming something far greater and more powerful than the sum of our parts. We have so much to give, so much to show the rest of the country, and we’re doing it right now.” In El Paso, these are not new talking points. But, in our national politics, this is something new: holding up the border not as the place where American political imagination ends but where it begins.