EL PASO, Texas, March 30 (UPI) -- At a crowded downtown intersection less than a mile from the U.S.-Mexico border, Democrat Beto O'Rourke brought his presidential campaign to his native El Paso, Texas, for the first time.
"Welcome to the beautiful, magical, safe and secure U.S.-Mexico border," U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, said as she introduced candidate O'Rourke. "El Paso is the Ellis Island of the border and in Beto O'Rourke we are sending the nation our best."
The border is at the center of ongoing immigration debate in the United States, Escobar said, praising O'Rourke -- known as Beto, the Spanish nickname for Robert -- as a "son of the border."
"We are safe because we are a city of immigrants and asylum seekers," O'Rourke said in a stump speech that lasted 30 minutes. "El Paso represents America at its best."
Since officially announcing his presidential bid March 14, O'Rourke has driven almost 2,500 miles to campaign in eight states: Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.
But Saturday was the former congressman's first campaign appearance in Texas. Standing above the enthusiastic El Paso crowd and dressed in a customary button-down blue shirt and gray dress pants, O'Rourke quoted the civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King and promised a campaign focused on respect and unity rather than division and fear.
"Rather than a campaign based on where you live, who you love, or who you voted for in the last elections, before anything else we are Americans first," O'Rourke told the crowd of several thousand.
O'Rourke promised his campaign would unify Americans on immigration reform, climate change legislation, universal healthcare and equal pay for women. He vowed to defend women's reproductive rights and to protect U.S. democracy. He did not mention gun control, an issue he has addressed at other rallies.
"Universal healthcare means everyone gets primary healthcare, mental healthcare -- and universal care also means that every woman makes her own decisions about her own body," O'Rourke said.
If he were the next president, O'Rourke said he would sign legislation to protect voting rights, provide families with paid leave and outlaw workplace discrimination. He said he would end the federal prohibition on cannabis and expunge arrest records for a substance now legal in many states. He promised to protect so-called Dreamers, child migrants brought to the United States by their parents under an Obama-era program and who are at risk of deportation. He also said he would confront the legacy of slavery in the United States.
"Let's confront the true legacy of slavery, of segregation, suppression, of how people have been criminalized & kept down based on their race and ethnicity. Only that truth will allow us to begin to repair the damage done," he said.
Near the end of his speech, he broke for several minutes into Spanish. It delighted the crowd, who chanted "Si se puede!" in response, meaning, "Yes we can!"
O'Rourke's call for unity appealed to rallygoer Juan Olivas and his husband, Treo Valdés, both of El Paso.
"We are supporting Beto because he is a voice for change and he will make sure we are united and not divided as a country," Olivas said. "He is conciliatory and he offers reason and clarity and a strong support for human rights."
Olivia Guzman, 12, attended the rally with her father, Joel. She said it was important to attend the rally because "this is our future."
"If Beto wins he could make things better," Olivia said. "All the issues he is talking about are really important: climate change, gun control, health care, immigration. Beto can change what President Trump is doing."
O'Rourke only mentioned the president twice in his speech. But he received some of his loudest applause when calling for immigration reform, an issue President Donald Trump made a hallmark of his 2016 campaign.
In his speech, the former 2018 U.S. Senate candidate drew attention to migrant parents and children being held by U.S. Border Patrol in a tent underneath the Paso del Norte bridge linking El Paso to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
O'Rourke visited the tent Friday and posted his reaction on social media. "Kids, moms, and families trapped for days at a time in our name. Will continue pushing for answer so we can put an end to this," he said.
But not everybody in downtown El Paso on Saturday agreed with O'Rourke's pro-immigrant status. Before his campaign rally began, a smaller crowd of Trump supporters protested a few blocks away in favor of the president's agenda.
"Finish the wall," the protesters cried as they held up banners saying, "Trump-Pence 2020."