EL PASO, Texas, Sept. 17 (UPI) -- At Austin High School, situated on a hill just a few miles from the Mexican border and with a stunning view of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke held his 99th and 100th town hall meetings Monday, taking questions from constituents and veterans.
Democrat O'Rourke has been El Paso's congressman since 2013 and these are his final months in that office. In November, O'Rourke hopes to unseat Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in what has become a closely watched race, the most expensive campaign in the current midterm elections. If O'Rourke can take the seat from Cruz, Republicans may lose their Senate majority.
At Monday's meetings, O'Rourke mixed patriotic thanks for constituents' military service with calls for passing the federal budget by the Oct. 1 deadline, overhauling immigration, protecting educational funding for all students and achieving universal healthcare.
Passing the federal budget is crucial, O'Rourke said, particularly for his constituents. El Paso ranks fifth in the nation for the concentration of federal government jobs, he said, pointing out what would happen to El Paso if the government shut down because Congress descends into partisan bickering.
"Think about all of the Border Patrol agents, all of the Customs officers, all the officials who work at La Tuna prison, all those who serve service members at William P. Beaumont Army Medical Center, those who take care of veterans at the VA, those who deliver the mail. Think about every single federal priority, every way in which this country, through its national government, changes or improves our lives, enforces our laws. All of this is jeopardized if government cannot stay open," O'Rourke said, expressing "the cautious optimism" Congress will pass the budget in time.
Immigration was the most burning issue O'Rourke addressed in this border city. He railed against last week's announcement by the Department of Health and Human Services to expand the "tent city" in nearby Tornillo for unaccompanied migrant children detained at the border.
"There are still hundreds of children in those tents right now who have no idea when or even if they are going to see their parents again," O'Rourke said.
The Trump administration plans to expand the camp to hold more than 3,000 children.
"Right now the United States government is detaining more than 12,000 kids from all over the world, most of them from these northern triangle countries of Central America. We made it harder for those kids to rejoin their parents. In fact, in hundreds of cases we have already deported these parents back to the countries they already fled in the first place," O'Rourke said. "This country of immigrants, this inspiration to the rest of the world, this cannot be us. This one is on all of us. It is up to all of us to make it right at this moment."
The issue rises above partisan lines he said, and El Paso is "the defining border community to help to wake this country's conscience to what is being done in our name at this moment. Never again must a parent be taken from a child under these conditions."
Constituents asked about how to make school safe for students (teachers should not be armed, O'Rourke said), border security and special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of Donald Trump's presidential campaign and Russian interference in the 2016 elections.
Some 648 people -- high school students, constituents and reporters -- attended the town hall meetings.
O'Rourke's race against Cruz is the country's most expensive, with both candidates amassing war chests of about $23 million. Current polling by Quinnipiac University suggests Cruz will win the race, but O'Rourke has significantly reduced the Republican incumbent's lead to just a few percentage points. Trump has agreed to campaign for Cruz.
In Monday's audience, was Black Klansman author Ron Stallworth, a constituent of O'Rourkes. The congressman recognized Stallworth's presence, calling his book about infiltrating the racist KKK in Colorado Springs as a black police officer "extraordinary."
Stallworth, 65, moved to El Paso when he was 4 years old. Since Spike Lee's movie adaptation of his book about going undercover in the KKK opened in August, Stallworth appears on talk shows in a "Beto for Senate" t-shirt.
Stallworth stood at the podium to ask O'Rourke quickfire questions about Washington: "What's going on at the White House? How can [Congress] not consider impeaching this fool?"
"Freely choosing our elected leaders is the envy of the world," O'Rourke replied. "To me, it's obstruction of justice when the president tweets out that the attorney general must stop the Russia investigation. There has to be accountability, and there has to be justice."
At this, the crowd burst into applause, rising in volume when O'Rourke announced his support for Mueller's investigation.
"Allow Mueller to find the facts as far as they go and as high as they reach," O'Rourke said. "That will allow him to get to the truth, to the justice, to the accountability we deserve as Americans."