This interview is included in the Harvard Kennedy School's 2023 Issue of the Anti-Racism Policy Journal. The full edition can be found here.

A policy adopted by the Trump Administration in 2020, Title 42, allowed border agents to expel migrants on public health grounds, leaving many without a chance to seek asylum. The rule had been used to expel migrants 2.6 million times since March 2020.[i] The Biden Administration ended the COVID-19 public health order on May 11, 2023, thus suspending Title 42. However, the Biden Administration recently published a new, similarly harmful rule that presumes asylum ineligibility for people who enter the United States between ports of entry.[ii]

El Paso has faced a historic migration crisis that has recently peaked, with nearly 2,500 people attempting border crossing between ports of entry per day in December 2022.[iii] In January 2023, Zuckerman Fellows at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership visited El Paso. In a follow-up meeting, Zuckerman Fellow Amy Eisenstein interviewed Beto O'Rourke, who served as the U.S. Representative for Texas's 16th congressional district from 2013 to 2019, about race and racism at the border and how the Biden Administration’s new rule will exacerbate harm to migrants.

This interview took place on March 3, 2023, before Title 42 ended and after the Biden Administration announced its intent to continue an “asylum ban.”

This interview was conducted by CPL Zuckerman fellow Amy Eisenstein and has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Amy Eisenstein: Beto, thank you so much for meeting with me today. The theme for the Spring Issue of Harvard Kennedy School’s Anti-Racism Policy Journal is race and geography. It would be great to have a conversation with you about how race intersects with immigration and border community issues. Can you tell me what the border looks like right now and if you see race coming up in any of your exchanges?

Beto O’Rourke: The border is in one of its more stressful periods historically. The…level of crossing attempts between ports of entry has really stressed the system and people who are responsible for border security, immigration—dealing with the welfare of vulnerable people… I’m 50 years old, I’ve lived in El Paso most of my life, and I haven’t seen this level of people sleeping on the street, the overwhelming of the social service agencies, not to mention the federal government…

But I think it’s very important in as close to the next breath as I can get that I say El Paso is safe; El Paso is really this beautiful community that has chosen to respond to this unprecedented level of need with extraordinary generosity and kindness and compassion. I think that’s very much characteristic of this community. [For the sake of]...all involved, especially those migrants and asylum seekers who find themselves crossing in between these ports of entry and then navigate into a system of either detention or deportation or in some cases, separation. We’ve got to fix this. No one, I guess, beyond the migrant, understands that better than those who live in the border community.

AE: That’s really helpful. I’m curious if you can speak at all about how you see race and racism at play in national policies related to the border.

BO: That is more clear than it has ever been in my life…The very open racism that is a core part of the hostility toward immigration and immigrants is very visible right now. So, I’ll give you an example, Amy, you have a year before last, 14 or 15,000 Haitian asylum seekers who crossed near Del Rio and are huddled underneath a bridge in a town of I’m guessing 35,000, 40,000 people? So that’s a lot of people, especially given the population they are meeting and the size of that town. When that’s happening, Dan Patrick…our Lieutenant Governor—very very powerful position in the state of Texas—goes on Fox television and says, “Look, if we let these Haitians in, they are going to start having kids, those kids will be U.S. citizens, they’ll grow up, they’ll vote for Democrats. And they will replace us.” And I think he may have literally said, “replace us.” Which, obviously, is part of [the]... “replacement theory” that animates mass murders and political violence like the one we saw in El Paso in 2019 and in Buffalo New York just a few years later. This is not stuff that’s at the fringe of political thought and conversation, this isn’t in the dark corners of the internet, this is prime time on the most watched cable television news program by arguably one of, if not the most powerful man in the state of Texas. So, race and racism, in particular, are very much animating the conversation. Therefore, the policies that flow and follow from the conversation.

AE: Right, it is terrible to see. I want to ask you about the Biden Administration’s new rule, which is set to come into effect on May 11, that bars from asylum all non-Mexican migrants who arrive at the southern U.S. border without having first sought and been denied asylum from another country they pass through on their journey. To my understanding, you have previously criticized the Biden administration for ending Title 42 without a plan for handling the influx of migrants. With both of those things said, I’m curious what you think about the new rule.

BO: It is unnecessarily punitive, perhaps even cruel towards those, who, if we humbly remind ourselves, are doing what we would do in the same situation—for not first requesting asylum in Mexico. A country that, depending on their circumstances and their location, may not be a whole [lot] safer than where they fled from. Again, if you are penniless and a stranger in a strange land and you don’t have relatives or friends… that to me would be more dangerous than going to America where you may have relatives and friends and a job lined up: This is where I intended to go when I left and I’m not going to apply in Mexico...

What I think is being proposed is a transit ban which is very similar to the one imposed by the Trump Administration and then later canceled as the courts weighed in…I’m not actually sure this is smart politically. I understand the political motive and the political problem that you are trying to solve in terms of demonstrating strength on the border. I just don’t think that this is going to appease people who want to see a wall and even greater cruelty, nor is [it] going to endear you to people who understand that this system is really broken and this is not the answer to it.

So I think both of those things can be true, right? That this is a bad idea, and as Title 42 comes to a close, we’ve got to have a plan and probably more importantly, the capacity in border communities to be able to process those who are coming to claim asylum in this country who, as you know from Title 42, have essentially been arbitrarily turned around before being able to begin that asylum application process. So, I don’t think the answer is a transit ban. I think the answer is building out that capacity and meeting some of the fundamental problems that are driving the problem in the first place.

AE: I would like to move on to ask you about messaging about immigration, which I think has always been difficult for Democrats. It always feels like Dems are playing defense against tough Republican arguments. I’m curious if you can lend some insight into how Democrats can and should talk about immigration and how race might play into that messaging.

BO: …I’ve come to the conclusion that if you want to do the right thing, there is no universally appealing message or even a broadly popular message. You think about some of the things we were talking about when I mentioned that it would have been preferable if the Biden Administration would have invested in infrastructure and capacity around the number of people who are going to claim asylum when Title 42 ends, and also the need to address the fundamental issues that are causing this. Like, why does somebody leave Guatemala? Is it related to climate change related food scarcity? Why does someone leave Venezuela? Is it related to political instability? Saying all of that doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker. I mean, people don’t cheer for “yes, take responsibility for our involvement in Central America over the last 70 years.” So you can maybe traffic in things like “comprehensive immigration reform,” because it says so much but it also says so little because it’s way overused, but it’s kind of that phrase when you wave that flag it’s like, okay, I know where this person is on this stuff. But.. because it has been so overused and has been promised for so long and has been so unrealized, I think it has lost all of its political potency…

Otherwise we can talk about our values and [say], “We are America. We are a nation of immigrants. We are so lucky that people are coming here and are doing amazing things.” I kind of talk within that language just to talk about what it means to us. But again, I don’t know that this is politically compelling enough to overcome messages about fear, and “folks that are coming to get us,” invasions that we must repel, and very simple solutions. You know, “build a wall, that should fix it.” Or “send them all back.” That language is cleaner, simpler—and as unrealistic and terrible as those ideas are, they really resonate. So here’s my theory: you’ll need a president that deeply believes in [immigration] as their primary priority. Because it will entail not just a huge legislative push, but if you’re going to really get this done, it means that Latin America and the Western hemisphere become your number one policy priority. It’s a whole reorientation of what a presidential administration would look like. That person can’t necessarily run on that.

Again, all of that stuff I just described doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker. It may flow from a larger message about getting back to our values, or, let’s be bold, let’s do big things. Here’s my analogy: I didn’t vote for Senator Barack Obama in 2008 because I wanted him to usher through the Affordable Care Act. I mean, I’m glad he did, but that just wasn’t why I voted for him. I was just inspired by him, and the general message and theme of that campaign and his character as a candidate, I was like “...I want that guy in the White House. He should be our president. He will make good decisions.” And so [his] decision was, I’m going to use all possible political capital on this to the exclusion of everything else, necessarily, it’s just the way life works and the choices that you make, and therefore we got the Affordable Care Act. And it’s saved countless lives. But you would need a president to do that on immigration. Because if you had run on the Affordable Care Act, if you had been trying to explain how, and people were at town halls, and reporters were like, “Wait a second, do I lose my insurance? Is it gonna be universal?” He doesn’t want to get bogged down in that shit and he wouldn’t have won. Once he had that position to work from, he chose this. I think you will need something like that from a president in the future.

And that’s me just cutting to the quick on your question because I don’t think there’s a messaging answer to this. I don’t think you can concoct some stupid superficial thing that suddenly makes this very exciting to people. It’s gotta be an exercise in leadership or the only other option is something cataclysmic that happens. You know, John Lewis almost loses his life crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 65, LBJ is able to get the Voting Rights Act through. There have been other moments in American history where the conscience of the country is so engaged that they force change. Either that, or you need an Obama Affordable Care Act moment. Those are the only two ways that I see this happening.

AE: You mentioned fear in your response and then you also spoke about Haitian immigrants. We know that a lot of anti-immigrant policies and practices are rooted in people’s fears, and you kind of alluded to this, but do you think that race plays a part in these fears? Where? Is somebody who is, for example, a Black Central American immigrant experiencing different types of challenges and discrimination at the border compared to somebody who looks stereotypically El Pasoan?

BO: …Somebody mentioned this to me this week who is herself an immigrant from Latin America. She said that the way in which those fleeing war and suffering in Ukraine are treated seems to be very different from those who are fleeing violence and suffering in our hemisphere. I just don’t know if that’s true. It sounds right, and maybe feels right, based on experiences that I’ve heard. But I think that would require some real investigation and facts to demonstrate that that’s the case.

Then there’s just—I think this probably goes without saying but bears repeating—the 2019 shooting in El Paso where 23 people were murdered. It is someone who has been fueled by the kind of political speech used by Donald Trump. You know, calling people animals, and at the same time that he’s calling people coming from this hemisphere animals, referring to them as an infestation, describing them as a mortal danger to Americans here, “they’re rapists, they’re criminals, they’re killers,” at the same time he’s doing that, we learn that he says something to the effect of, “I want more immigrants from Sweden or Scandinavia.” You know, the brown part of our hemisphere versus the whitest place on the planet. That helps us understand how you can get a policy like family separation that treats people as less than human. The most fundamental human connection is between a child and their mother. And to forcibly separate children who are already traumatized from a 2000 mile journey, and whatever the shit they were going through back in El Salvador or Honduras or Guatemala or Haiti, now the most unimaginable trauma of being forcibly taken from the person you love most in the world, and upon who you are depending because you don’t speak the language, you don’t know anybody, you’re in a cell right now, how the fuck could we do that to somebody! Well: “they’re just not human in the way that we are; they’re just not us.” I think that’s the only way that that can happen.

So, whether it's that treatment of migrants and asylum seekers, the Walmart shooting that was predicated on this white replacement theory, and the killer in that case had posted online that he had come to El Paso to repel the Hispanics that were taking over the state of Texas politically. I mean that stuff is just part of us, and part of how we are responding to this now, and how we have historically treated people from this hemisphere and Black and Brown people in America.

AE: I think you’ve teased out a lot that we don’t often say out loud, and I really appreciate you for being so candid. Lastly, do you have anything in mind for what a comprehensive anti-racist immigration policy agenda might look like?

BO: The first thing, especially from the federal perspective, is to make the Western hemisphere our number one policy priority. It does not mean that Ukraine is not important, or our relationship with China, or our involvement in the Middle East, or pick a place on the planet, it just means that this is the most important place because these are the people with whom we are connected by land…We’re locked into this relationship forever, until the plates shift, and we’re connected now more than ever culturally and linguistically…As more and more people immigrate and seek asylum and find it here in America, they’re related to more and more people in other parts of this hemisphere. And I happen to think that’s a beautiful, wonderful thing, in addition to being a real competitive advantage for the United States versus almost any other part of the world. 15% of those who live in America were born somewhere else. Only .07% of those who live in China were born somewhere else. So we get the benefit of folks who are bringing perspective, expertise, experience from around the planet and making us so much stronger for it…

I don’t know how you, through policy, address this real racism that exists in our immigration system right now. But …I would say, “This part of the world, these people…the vast majority of whom happen to be of Mestizo heritage—they’re the most important relationship that we have. We’re going to lift the per-country-cap so that you’re not waiting 22 years to come here from India, from the Philippines, from Mexico; why are we treating these parts of the planet in this way?”

... Asylum seekers, when they reach our borders, they have been through a real trauma... I feel like we are all too comfortable with treating them less than we would treat…our fellow Americans…People… are killed crossing into this country in some of the most inhospitable parts of the hemisphere. So, you know, all of those problems that we have I think are evidence of the double standard that we employ on immigration and all of those things would need to be fixed but then you’ve gotta do some things that are forward looking, ambitious and bold. For me, the boldest thing that America could do would be to orient itself towards the Americas and really develop these relationships and work on a much larger level of prosperity, stability, and positive opportunities in these home countries throughout the Americas. That to me…would fundamentally change the way that we treat and look at people in Latin America.



[i] García, Uriel J. “U.S. Supreme Court Cancels Arguments over Title 42, the Pandemic-Era Policy to Quickly Turn Away Migrants.” The Texas Tribune, February 16, 2023.

[ii] Human Rights Watch. “US: Biden ‘Asylum Ban’ Endangers Lives at the Border,” May 11, 2023.

[iii] Reid, Tim, Ted Hesson, and Ted Hesson. “El Paso Mayor Declares State of Emergency over Influx of Migrants from Mexico Border.” Reuters, December 18, 2022, sec. United States.



by Amy Eisenstein, CPL Zuckerman Fellow


The views and opinions expressed in Student Voices are the solely those of the author and are not endorsed by the Center for Public Leadership.