Beto’s Booker `deported salutatorian’ story wasn’t exactly right, or entirely wrong

Beto O’Rourke and Todd Yauck in Booker, Texas in the summer of 2017.

Good Day Austin:

Yesterday morning I received an email, with a link to a story I had written in September 2017. My story was headlined, Can Beto O’Rourke lead Texas Democrats out of the political wilderness?

“This article you wrote has false information about Booker TX,” the email informed me. “Please do not continue to report false news to the public.”

In that story I had written:

Trump and Cruz are, in their own ways, polarizing figures. But O’Rourke is temperate, accommodating, approachable and positive.

He talks about his visit to Booker in Lipscomb County, the northeastern corner of the Panhandle, where Hillary Clinton garnered 135 votes to Trump’s 1,159, but where the Republican Party chairwoman, “in true Texas fashion … invites me out to dinner, and we’re talking about immigration because, she tells me, ‘We just deported the salutatorian from Booker High School at the point where he is about to pay dividends back on the investment we made in him, someone who is as American as any of our kids or grandkids.’”

But my email correspondent attached a screenshot from a statement posted that morning by Booker ISD.

 

Hmm.

Beto’s Booker anecdote – one of many from his travels to all 254 Texas counties – had been a staple on the campaign trail.

From a report in December 2017 from the San Angelo paper on a visit by O’Rourke to Tom Green County.

On the subject of the status of dreamers, “Many people have not had the opportunity to follow their dreams.” O’Rourke continued. “The salutatorian in Booker, Texas was deported to Guatemala after graduation. Republicans and Democrats alike in that community thought it was ridiculous.”

From  It’s been a minute, with Sam Sanders on NPR in February 2018.

SANDERS: Anyways, you were saying – talking to folks about immigration.

O’ROURKE: Yeah. And so here you are, as far away from the U.S.-Mexico border as you can be and still be in the state of Texas, and the people in Booker have this on their mind. And they had just witnessed the deportation of an honor roll student at Booker High School back to his country of origin. And as conservative and Republican and disconnected from the border as Booker might be, the people in Booker absolutely got what’s going on. And they knew that they had invested in this young man in the property taxes they paid to finance his education, the quality of life in the community, and just when he’s about to produce a return in whatever he does – the business he starts, the people he hires, the family he raises, the quality he brings to that community – he’s been deported back to his country of origin where he probably doesn’t speak the language, may no longer have family. And if he’s successful against what I think are incredibly long odds, he’ll be successful there and not in Booker.

And so they want him in their community. They don’t want a wall. They get that – especially if I share the facts that the U.S.-Mexico border has never been more secure. We’ve – have the lowest levels of northbound apprehensions. Very often they’re kids, and if they’re lucky they’re kids with their parents fleeing El Salvador and Honduras and Guatemala. And they’re presenting themselves to Border Patrol agents and customs officers, not fleeing from them. A wall will do nothing.

But, what brought the story back home to Booker was last Friday’s U.S. Senate debate, in which it figured prominently in O’Rourke’s answer to the very first question at last Friday’s U.S. Senate debate at SMU.

Q: Congressman O’Rourke, you drew the first question. We’re going to start with you. You said last week, representative, you want citizenship for Dreamers today. And yet others who apply to come to America continue to wait. Sen. Cruz said he doesn’t support a path to citizenship for Dreamers, which means they could be sent back to a country they’ve never known. Who’s right, representative?

O’Rourke: My wife, Amy and I were in Booker, Texas – we traveled to each one of the 245 counties in Texas -and one of the reddest communities in the state and we were surprised as we were going door-to-door to hear the number one concern from people in that community was the fate of Dreamers. There are nearly 200,000 in the state of Texas. And the salutatorian from Booker High School had just been deported back to his country of origin and everyone there was concerned about his welfare. But they’re also concerned about the fact that he’d just been sent back to a country whose language he didn’t speak, where he no longer had family connections, where if he was successful against those long odds, he’ be successful there for that place  and not here for Texas. There’s no better people than those of us here in this state – Republicans and Democrats and Independents alike, the defining border experience, the defining immigrant experience – to rewrite our immigration laws in our own image and to ensure that we begin by freeing Dreamers from the fear of deportation, by making them U.S. citizens so they can contribute to their full potential to the success not just of themselves and their families but to this country. The economists who have studied it said we would lose hundreds of billions of dollars to the negative if we deport them. We’ll gain hundreds of billions of dollars to the positive if we keep them. Sen. Cruz has promised to deport each and every single Dreamer. This cannot be how Texas leads on this important issue.

The Booker News wrote about the school district disputing O’Rourke’s deportation claim yesterday.

This was a puzzle.

In my story, I quoted O’Rourke as sourcing the information about the deported salutatorian to the hospitable Lipscomb County GOP chairwoman.

That would be Diana Hoover

I called Hoover yesterday.

She was driving to Amarillo.

She’s never actually met O’Rourke, but she did extend a dinner invitation to him via Facebook Live as he was heading into town.

Hoover:

He was in Booker. I saw that the was doing a Facebook Live feed and he was as the Republican Party chairman and I saw he was running for Senate, I was kind of watching it and seeing the comments and he was in his car and I said I’d come to town to meet you but I’ve got a houseful of people and I’m cooking enchiladas, and I said why don’t you come by here and I’ll feed you dinner.

And then I found out he was a Democrat and I was little embarrassed that I’d invited him but I wasn’t going to withdraw my invitation.

O’Rourke couldn’t make it, but, while she was making her enchiladas, Hoover continued to watch the Facebook Live feed as Claire Walsh , an accomplished young attorney, the rare Democrat in Lipscomb – Hoover calls her her “Democrat friend”  – brought O’Rourke to the Booker Grocery Cafe, owned by Walsh’s uncle, Todd Yauck, to meet more folks.

It was Todd Yauck, about 20 minutes into this video, who tells O’Rourke about the deported salutatorian.

YauckWe’ve had people in the community, who have been in the community the whole time, that graduated as the salutatorian of the class that get deported.”

O’Rourke: That happened here in Booker? 

Yauck: Yes, because they just didn’t have their papers when they came across, when they were one or two years old. You’d think that if they spent twelve years in the local school system, they’d be considered citizens.

“This stuck with Beto because we wouldn’t have guessed immigration would be on people’s minds until we showed up and asked what issues were on their minds,” said Chris Evans, who travels with O’Rourke and does the live streams (though the Booker trip preceded his tenure in this role) and is the spokesman for the campaign. ‘We have spent the last 18 months driving around the state to visit every county and to have conversations with our fellow Texans. We take what we learn in each community with us and share it as we continue traveling the state.”

I talked with Yauck.

When he spoke with O’Rourke, he was referring to Yamile Guerrero Rosales – she used to work for him and her sister still does –  though he didn’t identify her to O’Rourke by name.

Unlike the deported salutatorian of O’Rourke’s anecdote, Rosales is a she, not a he; she is from Mexico, not Guatemala, and she speaks both Spanish and English. And she was valedictorian back in 2006, and has since gained her legal U.S. residency and citizenship and is living and working as an accountant for an oil and gas company in Booker, not trying to make her way in a land not really her own to which she had been forcibly removed.

“I don’t know how it all got lost in translation,” said Yauck, who said he was a little disappointed O’Rourke didn’t do a little fact-checking before taking the story on the road.

I talked to Rosales. She came to Booker from Durango, Mexico, when she was three.

She married an American citizen, has two children, 8 and 10, with a third baby due any day.

After the birth of her first child, she went to Juarez, Mexico, in order to do the necessary paperwork to legalize her status, a process that took six months.

“The process is really difficult,” she said. And there is always the risk, that you will be denied.

For over a year, her mother has been in Durango trying to legalize her status, with no certainty she will be able to return.

But, Rosales said, legal status is “kind of necessary for everything.”

Yauck said that what she went through amounts to deportation, or at any rate, temporary deportation.

He told O’Rourke about how difficult and expensive the immigration system is for those trying to normalize their status, having to travel five hours to immigration offices in Lubbock or eight hours to Dallas to get blood-work done, or get finger-printed, or do other paperwork.

“There’s a big hassle on these people,” Yauck said, unduly complicated and expensive.

“Our immigration laws are really screwed up,” Yauck told O’Rourke.

Yauck and his niece both, separately, told O’Rourke that the very large Hispanic community in Booker and Lipscomb County – immigrant and not, citizen and not, legal, and not – were a great strength.

“It’s of vital importance to our community,” he said, working in the oil fields and at a small, local meat-processing plant.

Hoover agreed.

She had worried that O’Rourke’s Booker story, despite his exalting its citizenry as enlightened and empathetic, might leave a bad impression – “that we’re deporting, salutatorians, smart, contributing, upstanding people in or community. Even though they are not legal, those are the people everyone knows and they like and are surprised they are not legal.”

Hoover had seen O’Rourke talking on Fox with Tucker Carlson about Booker – “as Republican as it gets in Texas, and the people in Booker were concerned about Dreamers because they had just deported an honor roll student.”

Hoover:

I”ll say if you took a ballot in Booker about whether to give every Dreamer immediate citizenship, it would be voted down.

We all believe in, let’s figure out a better way to do it, besides deporting all of them, you know what I mean. Let’s figure out a path to citizenship or whatever.

And in my mind, if it’s costing them thousands of dollars in lawyers’ fees and everything to get legal, in my mind, if they don’t have a criminal record, and are working and are not on assistance, put them on a different path, maybe fine them a reasonable amount because they have broken the law and instead of having them pay the same thousands of dollars to an attorney, have it be they pay a fine, and then we’re all happy.

Dr. Brian Holt, in his second year as superintendent in Booker, said that Rosales had not come up in their search for any recent top student who had been deported, because she had not been deported.

The district’s enrollment of 400 means that the graduating class has only about 20 students, and the town doesn’t tend to lose track of them. When O’Rourke was in town, Holt said, he may, going door-to-door, have heard some concern that a recent top graduate had been deported, but it turned out it was a false alarm – he was in college in Kansas.

Booker is little and  remote.

“Were closer to five state capitals than we are to Austin. it might be six, we have an argument about whether it’s five or six,” Hoover said. “I don’t want this to be blown up bigger than this. But any story with Booker in the national headlines is a concern. We want it to be a positive story.”

Last night, Hoover sent me a Facebook post her son, Nic Franklin, had written about Beto’s brush with Booker and vice versa.

I think it’s very good and captures all the nuances at play.

Nic Franklin:

At the risk of weighing in to a Facebook hornet’s nest…famous last words…after reading quite a bit of the commentary about Beto’s comments about my hometown of Booker, Texas here are my two cents:

When I heard a candidate for the United States Senate was coming to visit Booker – population 1,500ish – I was thrilled. Candidates for public office rarely visit towns that small, that far from well…airports. Democrats because there aren’t many voters there and very few of those who are will be voting for them. Republicans don’t visit because they don’t need to (pardon the double negative, I grew up in rural Texas). At the time of Beto’s visit, I was living in Austin but I told my mom, the local county Republican Party chairman, she should invite Beto over for dinner because a) I thought he might actually accept (the guy clearly needs to eat more) b) if he knew how good a cook my mom was he definitely would accept c) it seemed that if a candidate for Senate went all the way up to the Panhandle to knock on doors the chance to discuss issues affecting real rural voters that my mom represents was a worthwhile one d) the Beto campaign was recording all of this live and no matter what it was going to be great tv.

What was clear from the video was that Beto was genuinely surprised immigration was being brought up as often as it was as a hot button issue for the community. It seemed as though he expected to find a small town primarily made up of white farmers and ranchers rather than what Booker is – a diverse community made up of people immigrating to the country for the last 100 years. The country of origins and skin complexions have changed over time, but it has been a melting pot in ways only the people who live or have lived there likely understand…or those who bother to come visit.

No one is really talking about that part of his visit to Booker though. Instead if you watch the live video you can see that while Beto is at the local cafe he finds out that he is invited to my mom’s house for supper – though sadly he was not informed she was cooking enchiladas that night (stacked vs rolled will remain a debate for a different day) which might have changed how this all played out – but he declines. I do know that had he gone he would have been teased about being a Dem-O-crat by my mom (that’s the way she says a word she hates to say) and the rest of the family but he and his staff would have left with full bellies and an ear full of insight about places like Lipscomb county. The people who live in Lipscomb county are proud of it and love to show off what makes it a special place.

Since his visit to Booker, Beto has repeated slightly different versions of his visit including the version he told in the opening minutes of his debate with Senator Cruz. Here is the relevant portion of the debate:

Beto: We were surprised that the number one concern of people in that community was the fate of dreamers…and the Salutatorian of Booker High School had been deported back to his country of origin. Everyone there was concerned about his welfare, but they were also concerned about the fact he has been sent back to a country who language he didn’t speak, where he no longer had family connections, where if he was successful against those long odds he would be successful for that place and not successful for Texas.

The Facebook Live stream does not include the interactions when they went door to door, but there doesn’t seem to be anyone who talks about Dreamers specifically though the anecdote he retells clearly seems to be based on a conversation he had in the video with a local business owner who laments that a salutatorian had been deported. They commiserate on how it makes no sense for a community or state to invest in someone for twelve years or more through graduation and then right when they are ready to start being contributing members they get whisked away.

It turns out pieces of that story are not exactly as told or perhaps understood in real time – the subject of the story was actually that the valedictorian not the salutatorian (play Hamilton’s “Immigrants get the job done” lyrics),  the “he” from the story was a “she”, and she was not deported but she also could not become a naturalized resident without leaving the country she had lived in for – I presume – most of her life while leaving her baby behind and getting her paperwork in order in Mexico. I would call that a difference without a distinction if you are in the position of the young woman.

Whether the differences in Beto’s story and what the actual story is makes you outraged is up to you. But boy are you going to be disappointed when you find out about some of the other exaggerations, deceptions, and now I believe the current term is braggadocious politicians often make.

Rewatching the video and the debate it seems Beto missed a great opportunity. One I wouldn’t even notice if he wasn’t being billed as something more than a run of the mill politician. It seems pretty clear this anecdote Beto has used often about Booker is unfortunately just that to him – an anecdote. He talks with such earnestness about how cruel this system is that deported a valedictorian from a small town and yet he never bothered to look into it? The partisan cries about the story being inaccurate matter little to me, but Congressman O’Rourke is a sitting Texas Congressman. As far as he knew she had been deported. Even after he heard the story, even after retelling it several times on the campaign trail, and on Twitter, he never became interested enough to see what a United States Congressman could do to perhaps help this person? It leaves you feeling as though this story gets told/retold/reposted with commentary (like this one!) not because anyone really cares about the woman who was “deported” but because it fits a narrative. That the people in these stories politicians tell are not real people facing enormous challenges but props to be used at campaign rallies, in fundraising emails, and on debate stages.

The next time we get ready to vote it might be worth going back through the anecdotes of Bush, Obama, Trump and all the others running for office where they tell us a story about hardship being faced by some random person they met or heard about on the campaign trail. See if once the live tv feeds are off and the need for campaign donations are no longer there whether they did anything for the subjects of those stories they told. I don’t think Beto did anything wrong, I just think he is a lot more like traditional politicians than many people thought/hoped. But at least he showed up in Booker, Texas – population 1,500ish. No one else did.

 When all is said and done, I asked Hoover if O’Rourke might improve on Hillary Clinton’s 135 votes in Lipscombe County. No. she said. Clinton’s total was pretty good for a  Democrat, she said, stoked mostly by anti-Trump sentiment.

“I’d be surprised if he gets 20 votes in the county,” Hoover said of O’Rourke.

On the other hand, O’Rourke is likely to pick up the vote of at least one Trump voter – Todd Yauck.

Yauck said he tends to vote Republican but with a throw-the-bums out, drain-the-swamp predisposition

He voted for Obama in 2008 – “we’re all entitled to one mistake” – and Trump in 2016.

He’ll vote for Gov. Greg Abbott – “I think he’s doing a fine job.”

But not Cruz.

“Like Donald said, `Lyin’ Ted,'” Yauck said.

As for Rosales, she said she’s “neutral” as to how O’Rourke used her story, sort of, in his campaign.

And who will she be voting for?

“I’m still thinking,” she said.