WASHINGTON (AP) -- Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke is heading to Mexico on Sunday to meet with immigrants seeking U.S. asylum but "turned away" at the border.
In the former congressman's first international trip as a White House hopeful, his campaign says O'Rourke will visit Ciudad Juarez, across the Rio Grande from his native El Paso, Texas, to meet with what it calls "individuals and families directly impacted by Donald Trump's cruel and inhumane policies."
O'Rourke hopes to "shed light on the desperate circumstances those who are seeking asylum and refuge are fleeing, and the conditions these families and individuals are forced to endure when they've been turned away from our borders." That includes meeting with people and organizations providing immigrants care and assistance in Mexico.
O'Rourke blames those being forced to wait on "the Trump administration's unlawful 'Remain in Mexico' program," which has allowed the United States to return thousands of Central Americans to Mexican border cities as they wait to hear about their asylum claims. It is meant to reduce the attractiveness of U.S. asylum requests that in the past had allowed claimants to remain in the U.S. for years as their cases wound their way through the courts.
Praising his hometown as part of the world's largest "binational" community with Juarez is a centerpiece of O'Rourke's presidential campaign, and he released a sweeping immigration plan in May calling for providing millions of people in the country illegally with a "pathway" to U.S. citizenship, while deploying thousands of lawyers to the border to help process asylum cases and earmarking $5 billion to improve living conditions in the Central American countries many immigrants are fleeing.
O'Rourke has long argued that his border roots make immigration an issue of strength for him, and heading to Mexico may allow him to show off that expertise amid once-promising polling numbers that have flagged in recent months. During the first presidential primary debate in Miami, last week, however, O'Rourke clashed with fellow Texan and presidential candidate Julian Castro, who chided the ex-congressman for not being willing to decriminalize crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally.
"In all of the debate around immigration, we can't forget who it impacts most: the people traveling thousands of miles, fleeing the worst kind of violence and oppression," O'Rourke said in a statement late Saturday. "Turning away refugees, families and asylum seekers is not who we are as a country. But as long as Donald Trump is president — it will be."
O'Rourke is also planning a rally Sunday outside the U.S. Border Patrol facility in Clint, Texas, near El Paso, where immigrant children have reported being denied access to such basic amenities as showers, soap and toothbrushes. Castro visited that facility Saturday.
O'Rourke also previously traveled to centers holding immigrant children in Houston, and was one of many Democratic presidential candidates to visit one in Homestead, Florida, near the Miami debate site.
A frequent visitor to Juarez before he began running for president in March, O'Rourke was there in December to meet with immigrants staying in shelters as they waited to begin being processed for U.S. asylum.