Joan Brook for The Texas Tribune
FORT WORTH – Even before Texas Democrats’ convention officially got underway here this weekend, its top candidates were chomping at the bit to seize on the biggest story in the country: thousands of immigrant children being separated from their parents at the border.
On Thursday morning, with most delegates still making the trip up Interstate 35, Lupe Valdez and Mike Collier convened reporters in an auditorium at the Fort Worth Convention Center — and let it rip on their Republican opponents for their for what they described as weak responses to the crisis.
Collier, who’s challenging Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, said the incumbent “proves again and again he’s not cut from the same moral fiber Texans are” and is “just simply not one of us.” Valdez, who’s running against Gov. Greg Abbott, said he “proved yet again to be [President Donald] Trump’s puppet.”
It was far from the last time that the family separation crisis would come up at the convention. It has quickly emerged as the top issue by far at the three-day gathering, fueling anger and enthusiasm as Texas Democrats charge into a general election season determined to push back againstTrump and his GOP allies in Texas.
Pushback to the “zero tolerance” policy was also among the biggest applause lines in the speeches for the top two Democratic candidates as well. U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-El Paso) who will tour the Tornillo Port of Entry Saturday morning, said reuniting separated children with their parents was one of his top priorities prior to the fall election. And before O’Rourke took the stage, Valdez chided current leaders for what she called “hate” and “intolerance.”
“Who here didn’t tear up as they heard the audio of the children torn from their parents crying, pleading to be able to hear, see, or touch their parents again,” Valdez asked a boisterous crowd of more than 7,500 delegates Friday evening. “My God – I can’t imagine the pain and desperation that would cause parents to take their own lives because they didn’t know if and when they would ever see their children again.”
“Where’s our Texas heart?” Valdez asked.
The speeches at the state Democratic party convention come just days after Trump signed an executive order backing off his administration’s contentious “zero tolerance” policy, which has separated more than 2,300 immigrant children from their parents who illegally crossed the border. And just hours before most minority party members took the stage Friday, U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn took a tour of shelters that house some of the separated migrant children, a move both said reaffirmed their commitment to keeping kids with their parents so long as future immigration policy better deters people from entering the country illegally.
Democrats at the convention charged the other party with being slow to react to the crisis and only doing so out of political expedience. Gilberto Hinojosa, the state party chairman, devoted much of his speech to the issue as the general session began Friday afternoon, proclaiming there’s a “special place in hell” for Republicans complicit in family separation.
“Ted Cruz first defended Trump’s cruelty,” Hinojosa said. “Now, he’s scrambling for new talking points. Dan Patrick just doesn’t give a damn and spews hatefulness and nonsense against immigrants. And the governor of Texas – first we can’t find him, he doesn’t say anything, and then he writes a damn letter and thinks that we will wash his hands of all this horrible, inhuman conduct on their part.”
Speech after speech conveyed the tragic images of kids being split from their parents. State Rep. Helen Giddings of DeSoto, who chairs the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, said the pictures reminded her of the “dark days of slavery, when children were ripped away from their parents and sold, never to be seen again.”
Candidates running for office in November said they saw the spotlight on immigration as a chance to recruit Republicans frustrated with the current administration. And that may work. According to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll, a majority of Texas voters say they oppose “separating children and parents who are apprehended while trying to enter the U.S. illegally.”
“I’ve heard from people who identify as lifetime Republicans, people who say they’re independents and Democrats, that the number one issue for them is immigration. They’re absolutely horrified by what is going on at our border,” said Jana Lynne Sanchez, a Democrat challenging Tarrant County Tax Assessor-Collector Ron Wright for U.S. Rep. Joe Barton’s vacated seat.
“I proudly stand with Laura Bush and Joe Straus,” attorney general candidate Justin Nelson told the Texas Tribune, referring to the two Republicans who spoke out early and forcefully about the crisis.
A Democrat has not won statewide race in over two decades, and many expect that streak to continue this year. As Texas Democrats talked up the issue inside the convention center, their rivals were making political mischief outside: The Texas GOP dispatched a hearse to the area early Friday afternoon that bore a banner reading, “TEXAS DEMOCRATIC PARTY R.I.P. 1846-2018.” They also announced it had placed an pseudo-obituary for the Democrats in the Saturday edition of the local newspaper.
Gregory Gonzales, the GOP supporter who drove the hearse, told reporters after parking it across the street from the convention center that he trusted the state’s Republican leaders to address the family separation crisis and blamed Democrats for not delivering immigration reform that he said could have prevented it. He also suggested the media was exaggerating the extent of the crisis.
The pro-immigration sentiment will likely hold strong through the close of the Democratic convention. On Saturday, party leaders will host a Families First Rally in Fort Worth to protest the family separations. Valdez and Hinojosa are among some of the speakers announced to speak at the rally so far.
While they rally Saturday in Fort Worth, a number of prominent Democrats who were at the convention Friday are heading to the Tornillo tent camp later in the weekend. Among those making the trip are O’Rourke, who first visited the camp last weekend when he led a march to it, and Julián Castro, the former U.S. housing secretary and San Antonio mayor and a potential 2020 presidential candidate.
Introducing Hinojosa on Friday afternoon, Castro showed delegates a video of media coverage of the family separation crisis — and Democrats fighting back.
“I just want to make sure that we understand in very clear and precise terms from the past week a little bit about what the stakes are,” Castro said.