The international students of Sergeants Major Course Class 64 got a first-hand accounting of the happenings in the U.S. Congress April 17, when Congressman Beto O’Rourke, 16th District, came to meet with them in the west auditorium of the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy, Fort Bliss, Texas.
Michael Huffman, director of the International Military Student Office for the Academy introduced the congressman to the students.
“Usually every year on our field studies program we get the unique opportunity to speak with our congressional representative from El Paso while visiting Washington, D.C. Since congress is not in session during our trip this year, Congressman Beto O’Rourke has come to the Academy to brief you on his duties and responsibilities,” Huffman said. “You have already visited the city government; you visited the state government in Austin; so this is your last opportunity [to get an understanding of our form of government].”
With introductions over O’Rourke gave the students a brief overview of his duties as a first-term congressman, how he managed his campaign to win the congressional seat, his priorities in serving the constituents of the 16th District, and some of the things he has learned since becoming a congressman.
“When people ask me what has been surprising or interesting, something you didn’t know before you got here, that has been the real eye opener, the real shocking thing about our system of government in the U.S. and specifically the Congress, is how dominated it is by the desire to get re-elected and how critical money is in being able to be re-elected,” O’Rourke said. He added that he is for term limits and transparency in campaign finance and that his office has sponsored a bill that would bring transparency to campaign fundraising and would tie donor to candidates who make donations of $1,000 or more to any campaign.
O’Rourke said his two most important issues he focuses on are the dynamics of the U.S./Mexico border and his work on the Veterans Affairs Committee and on veterans’ issues in El Paso.
“We spend a significant amount of our time on improving the prospects and perspective on the U.S./Mexico border in Congress. You all have the great fortune of spending a year here and you realize how wonderful El Paso is, the great weather, the wonderful people, the excellent Mexican food, and what you also realize is that we are the safest city in America today,” he said. “I like to tell people that we are the safest city because we have Fort Bliss, excellent law enforcement, wonderful people working the border patrol, but perhaps more importantly than all those other things is that we are the safest city in America not in spite of, but because of a wonderful and proud tradition of immigration into this community.”
O’Rourke noted however that many in Congress look at the border as a threat for illegal drug importation, human trafficking, weapons and terrorists, everything he said only goes to fuel the insecurities if the uninformed. In contrast, he pointed to the fact that about $90 billion in US/Mexico trade crosses through the ports of entry between El Paso and Mexico; 22 million legitimate legal crossing every year, those crossers spend about $1.5 billion in the local economy.
“So we have far more to gain by broadening and deepening our relationship with Mexico, focusing on positive, capitalizing on the opportunities, then we do to shut down the border,” he said. “So a lot of our efforts in congress [is] educating my colleagues about the positive dynamics of the border and introducing legislation to improve how we treat the border and maybe shift away from a law enforcement dominated perspective.”
Turning to veterans issues, O’Rourke said El Paso and the surrounding area is home to about 100,000 veterans who are served out of the Veterans Affairs Clinic located on the grounds of the William Beaumont Army Medical.
“It is a system that in many cases unfortunately has failed our veterans – very hard to get a medical appointment, very hard to see a mental health specialist and those who were injured in service to their country, sometimes, far too often; it is very hard to get an answer back when they file a service-connected disability claim,” he said.
O’Rourke ended his comments thanking the students for allow him to address them and opened the floor up to questions which ranged from how does getting re-elected fit into the daily business of being a congressman to party discipline in voting on issues .
“Their questions were great and they were very basic questions that I would be asked by a constituent in El Paso – ‘What are you doing for your district, what are your goals, what have you attempted that you have been unable to accomplish.’ It really shows you that representation and the political process transcends countries,” O’Rourke said. “People are interested in the same things no matter where they are from. I was grateful that I was not asked any difficult geopolitical questions and could focus on those things that we really know best, the border.”
The Field Studies Program objective is to ensure that the students return to their homeland with an understanding of the responsibilities of governments, militaries, and citizens to protect, preserve, and respect the rights of every individual. Areas of focus are human rights, diversity and American life, U.S. government institutions , political processes, the judicial system, the free market system, education health and human services, media, international peace and security and the law of war.
The international students will visit Washington, D.C., next week to learn more about our federal government, our history and nation.