EL PASO, Texas (AP) — When President Donald Trump visited Beto O'Rourke's hometown to argue that walling off the southern border would make the U.S. safer, the former Democratic congressman and possible 2020 presidential hopeful was ready.
As the president filled an El Paso arena with supporters, O'Rourke helped lead thousands of his own on a protest march past the barrier of barbed-wire topped fencing and towering metal slats that separates El Paso from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
O'Rourke clearly hopes to make his personal experience with the border a strength if he runs for president — and the battle over billions of dollars in new fortifications may well shape the 2020 campaign.
But O'Rourke's history with the barriers that have lined the Rio Grande since he was a child actually could be a bit of vulnerability, too.
RELATED: Beto O'Rourke throughout his career
Beto O'Rourke throughout his political career
Beto O'Rourke throughout his political career
UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 13: Rep.-elect Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas, speaks to reporters after a news conference with democratic members-elect in the Capitol Visitor Center. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
**ADVANCE FOR MONDAY, OCT 31** El Paso City Representatives Steve Ortega, left and Beto O'Rourke pose with a backdrop of Downtown El Paso, Texas, Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2005. The two and three other colleagues, all political newcomers under 35, were elected this year to the El Paso city council. The group of young up-and-comers say they took on their public roles to make El Paso the kind of city it should be, the kind it has long struggled to become. (AP Photo/El Paso Times, Victor Calzada)
US Rep. Beto O'Rourke (R), D-TX, speaks during a meeting with One Campaign volunteers including Jeseus Navarrete (L) on February 26, 2013 in O'Rouke's office in the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGANWith the United States days away from billions of dollars in automatic spending cuts, anti-poverty campaigners fear that reductions in foreign aid could potentially lead to thousands of deaths. The world's largest economy faces $85 billion in cuts virtually across the board starting on March 1, 2013 unless the White House and Congress reach a last-minute deal ahead of the self-imposed deadline known as the sequester. While the showdown has caused concern in numerous circles, activists are pushing hard to avoid a 5.3 percent cut in US development assistance which they fear could set back programs to feed the poor and prevent disease. 'The sequester is an equal cut across the board, but equal cuts don't have equal impact,' said Tom Hart, US executive director of the One campaign, the anti-poverty group co-founded by U2 frontman Bono. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - MAY 23: Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas, rides his bike after a democratic congressional baseball practice in Northeast. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - MAY 23: Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas, is pictured at a democratic congressional baseball practice in Northeast. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
US Rep. Beto O'Rourke , D-TX, meets with One campaign volunteers on February 26, 2013 in O'Rouke's office in the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. With the United States days away from billions of dollars in automatic spending cuts, anti-poverty campaigners fear that reductions in foreign aid could potentially lead to thousands of deaths. The world's largest economy faces $85 billion in cuts virtually across the board starting on March 1, 2013 unless the White House and Congress reach a last-minute deal ahead of the self-imposed deadline known as the sequester. While the showdown has caused concern in numerous circles, activists are pushing hard to avoid a 5.3 percent cut in US development assistance which they fear could set back programs to feed the poor and prevent disease. 'The sequester is an equal cut across the board, but equal cuts don't have equal impact,' said Tom Hart, US executive director of the One campaign, the anti-poverty group co-founded by U2 frontman Bono. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 14: Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas, walks down the House steps of the Capitol following the last votes of the week on Friday, June 14, 2013. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
U.S. citizen Edgar Falcon, second from right, and Maricruz Valtierra of Mexico, second from left, laugh while El Paso congressman Beto O'Rourke, right, and Judge Bill Moody, left, congratulate them after the couple was married at U.S.-Mexico border, Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2013 in El Paso, Texas. Like many other couples made up of a US citizen and a foreigner, Falcon and Valtierra, who has been declared inadmissible after an immigration law violation, hope immigration reform will help them live together in the U.S. (AP Photo/Juan Carlos Llorca)
Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas, stands with his family for a ceremonial photo with Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, left, in the Rayburn Room of the Capitol after the new 113th Congress convened on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013, in Washington. The official oath of office for all members of the House was administered earlier in the House chamber. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas., surrounded by border region leaders, human rights experts, and residents, speaks to media on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013., during a news conference to explain what border communities are asking for in the context of immigration reform. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Congressman Beto O'Rourke, center, speaks at a new conference accompanied by Lillian D'Amico, left, mother of a deceased veteran, and Melinda Russel, a former Army chaplain, in El Paso, Texas, Wednesday, June. 4, 2014. A survey of hundreds of West Texas veterans conducted by O'Rourke's office has found that on average they wait more than two months to see a Veterans Affairs mental health professional and even longer to see a physician. (AP Photo/Juan Carlos Llorca)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 29: U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas, asks a question of former Army Capt. Debra Gipson during a House Veterans' Affairs Committee, Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs Subcommittee hearing on 'Defined Expectations: Evaluating VA's Performance in the Service Member Transition Process' in the Cannon House Office Building, May 29, 2014, in Washington, DC. Ms. Gipson suffered a severe back injury while en route to Afghanistan. (Photo by Rod Lamkey/Getty Images)
Democratic candidate for the US Senate Beto ORourke addresses his last public event in Austin before election night at the Pan American Neighborhood Park on November 4, 2018 in Austin, Texas. - One of the most expensive and closely watched Senate races is in Texas, where incumbent Republican Senator Ted Cruz is facing Democratic Representative Beto O'Rourke. O'Rourke, 46, whose given names are Robert Francis but who goes by Beto, is mounting a suprisingly strong challenge to the 47-year-old Cruz in the reliably Republican 'Lone Star State.' O'Rourke, a three-term congressman and former member of a punk band, is drawing enthusiastic support from many urban dwellers in Texas while Cruz does better in conservative rural areas.
Plucking the Senate seat from Cruz, who battled Donald Trump for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, would be a major victory for the Democratic Party. (Photo by SUZANNE CORDEIRO / AFP) (Photo credit should read SUZANNE CORDEIRO/AFP/Getty Images)
Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas, of El Paso, Texas, speaks at the University of Texas at Dallas Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017, in Richardson, Texas. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas, walks during a protest march in downtown Dallas, Sunday, April 9, 2017. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas, left, and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, right, take part in a debate for the Texas U.S. Senate, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018, in San Antonio. (Tom Reel/San Antonio Express-News via AP, Pool)
Texas Congressman Beto ORourke gives his concession speech during the election night party at Southwest University Park in downtown El Paso on November 6, 2018. - After a close race for senate, ORourke conceded to incumbent Ted Cruz in his home town. (Photo by Paul Ratje / AFP) (Photo credit should read PAUL RATJE/AFP/Getty Images)
Former Democratic Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke gestures during a live interview with Oprah Winfrey on a Times Square stage at "Oprah's SuperSoul Conversations from Times Square," Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019, in New York. O'Rourke dazzled Democrats in 2018 by nearly defeating Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in the country's largest red state. O'Rourke says he'll announce whether he'll run for president "before the end of the month." (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
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As the 2020 campaign is joined, other top Democrats can oppose Trump's call for more and larger walls as a straightforward wedge issue — something they say shows anti-immigrant feeling, intolerance and even racism.
But O'Rourke's record on border walls is complicated. In March, he supported a spending package that other leading Democratic contenders opposed and included $1.6 billion for border wall construction in Texas' Rio Grande Valley. Buried in that was $44.5 million for repairs of existing fencing elsewhere — including El Paso.
O'Rourke later explained the vote as a compromise to win approval of another proposal he backed, expanding access to mental health care for military veterans who had received other-than-honorable discharges. But his action attracted criticism from people who know the border best. Scott Nicol, co-chairman of the Sierra Club's Borderlands team, called it "very disappointing."
"The things that he has said have been dead on," Nicol said. "The next step becomes what do you do."
O'Rourke's nuanced position on border barriers, sometimes willing to use them as a bargaining chip, could be politically awkward in a national campaign but it's shared in El Paso. Here, many people accept dozens of miles of existing walls as a fact of life, objecting mostly to structures so intrusive they suggest a war zone.
"People in El Paso live with the border and the ambiguities and contradictions of the border," said Josiah Heyman, director of the University of Texas at El Paso's Center for Interamerican and Border Studies.
In an interview Thursday night on MSNBC, O'Rourke said he would "absolutely" tear down El Paso's existing walls and that he believed a majority of residents would back doing so. That somewhat contradicts his past statements about opposing entirely open borders, but O'Rourke has previously backed having them porous enough to promote trade and immigrant culture. In an interview in 2006, he decried President George W. Bush's proposal for bolstering the existing walls with more surveillance technology.
Bush's barrier "didn't seem like a meaningful suggestion at all, but maybe that's because we already have it and it doesn't seem to be working," he said.
City Council member Peter Svarzbein said El Paso's character isn't based on keeping people out, but rather on tens of thousands who legally cross every day for work, school, shopping or to see bi-national relatives.
Democratic analyst Colin Strother noted, "There are places that physical barriers make sense, but it does not make sense everywhere and that seems to be the big disconnect."
O'Rourke's attempts to explain his record could be difficult in a hotly contested primary campaign. His 2020 rivals could run into their own complications on the issue soon, however, after Congress approved $1.4 billion in new border wall money as part of a deal to avoid the latest government shutdown.
In the end, O'Rourke "may have some firsthand knowledge, but I don't know if it's a winning argument," said Democratic political consultant James Aldrete, who helped conduct Hispanic outreach for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
El Paso had only limited border security before 1978 when, facing an influx of immigrants looking for work in the U.S., Congress approved chain-link fencing later dubbed the "Tortilla Curtain." A 1986 federal law granting legal status to about 2 million Mexicans in the U.S. made the prospect of heading north even more attractive.
Eventually, thousands of people were pouring into El Paso every day, sometimes paying as little as a quarter for rides on makeshift rafts over the Rio Grande.
"People could cross whenever they wanted," said Silvestre Reyes, who was chief of the Border Patrol's El Paso sector in 1993 and won a congressional seat in 1996. "The city was tired of it."
Reyes ordered around-the-clock patrols and authorities repaired 100-plus holes in nine miles of fences downtown.
But when O'Rourke, then an upstart ex-City Council member, ran against Reyes in the 2012 Democratic primary, he didn't make Reyes' border crackdown an issue. Instead, O'Rourke more frequently complained of long wait times for cars crossing into El Paso from Juarez.
O'Rourke now opposes pumping any money into new walls. Instead, he'd like to see a coalition of border Democrats and Republicans in Congress hammer out a broader immigration overhaul.
"We know that there is no bargain where we can sacrifice some of our humanity to gain a little more security," O'Rourke told an emotional El Paso rally he headlined after the Trump protest march. "We know that we deserve to, and will, lose both of them if we do."
Reyes doesn't agree with O'Rourke on much but also opposes erecting concrete walls, which Trump has supported in the past.
"We have a lot of slats where you can still see through it," he said of El Paso. "That helps Border Patrol agents, but it also is supported by people living at the border."