JUÁREZ, Mexico — In the blazing Mexican heat earlier this month, Rep. Veronica Escobar consoled a young woman named Fatima, who described in a flood of Spanish how she had been raped in her native Nicaragua, separated by American authorities from her 5-year-old daughter in May, and sent back to Mexico to wait alone on her asylum claim. Her only wish now, Fatima said, was to be with her daughter again.
“How lucky people like me are to have been born on the other side of that skinny river,” Escobar, a freshman Democrat from El Paso, said later, after crossing to the American side of the Rio Grande.
Escobar, one of the first of two Latina women to represent Texas in the House, has become a leader in the bruising, emotional border debate on Capitol Hill. Elevated as a voice of authority by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Escobar has been passionate but also less confrontational than some of the other freshmen when highlighting President Donald Trump’s hard-line immigration policies.
On Friday, she took another televised star turn as one of the main witnesses at a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing on migrant child separation. Her proposal, aimed at toughening oversight provisions for the Department of Homeland Security, is one of the pieces of immigration legislation that Pelosi plans to move forward.
“She’s a person who listens to other people; other people listen to her,” Pelosi said Thursday. “She’s quite a spectacular member of Congress.”
Escobar’s prominence and activism have opened her up to attacks. On Monday, she said she was receiving death threats because of reports that her office was coaching asylum-seekers in Mexico to help them return to the United States, reports she dismissed as “fueled by xenophobia and misinformation.”
But for her, the spotlight has been a chance to represent her heavily Latino border district and to explain the realities of a vibrant, binational region that is home to migrants and immigration agents alike.
Hours after her encounter with Fatima, Escobar and her husband, a federal immigration judge, were at the minor league El Paso Chihuahuas baseball game, an annual ritual to celebrate their anniversary, when tears began to roll down the congresswoman’s cheeks as triumphant fireworks burst overhead. Her mind had returned to Fatima and all of the migrants she had seen in Mexico, she said, and the detained women who had wept in the arms of lawmakers two days earlier at El Paso Border Patrol Station No. 1 in Texas.
“People are locked out of what we did absolutely nothing to earn at birth,” Escobar, a third-generation El Pasoan, later said, wiping her eyes as she described the migrants she has met over the past six months. “I’ve never cried so much in my life. I just feel it so deeply, and so profoundly.”
The border, as she tells it, has always been a magical place where a mere line separates the El Paso dairy farm where she grew up and the Juárez streets where she would shop with her mother, and where her brothers would get terrible haircuts for $2.
The realization that the border carried a more ominous connotation outside El Paso didn’t register to her, she said, until the early 1990s, when she returned from New York University, where she earned a master’s degree in English literature in part by writing about the two worlds she easily crossed.
She volunteered with a local immigration group and political campaigns before running for office herself to be part of the El Paso County governing body. In 2017, when Beto O’Rourke gave up his House seat for an unsuccessful run against Sen. Ted Cruz, she decided to run for Congress.
Now, when she strides across the bridge from Mexico in high heels in order to avoid the traffic jam at the port of entry, she flashes her identification at Border Patrol agents and shakes her head at the added security — the fences, the increase in manpower and the closed-off traffic lanes.
She voiced displeasure with the Obama administration’s approach to immigration reform, but argues that the Trump administration’s policies have worsened the strain on El Paso’s resources and ability to support the influx of migrants.
“We are literally on the front line of an administration that intentionally uses cruelty in communities like mine,” Escobar said. “There’s always a sense of urgency.”
In June 2017, Jeff Sessions, then the attorney general, appointed Escobar’s husband, Michael Pleters, to the El Paso Service Processing Center immigration court, which had one of the lowest rates for approving asylum cases in fiscal year 2017. Escobar notes that he had been offered the position during the final months of the Obama administration and was formally approved after the change in leadership.
Primary opponents argued that her husband’s position tainted her immigration record because he was tasked with upholding Trump administration policies. She argued that he was doing his job, and she was the one running to change those laws.
The accusations trailed her to Washington, where she said another member made a comment early on about her husband’s career.
“I just remember thinking, ‘Aw jeez, are you serious? The campaign’s over,’” she said. “People who are critics of an immigration judge don’t understand the significance of moving people through a judicial process.”
But the controversy surrounding her husband reflects the tortured debate within Congress, where lawmakers are torn over how to fund enforcement efforts at the southwestern border. While a quartet of liberal congresswomen, led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, voted against sending any humanitarian aid to the border, Escobar quietly pushed behind the scenes for changes to the bill that would add conditions to the funds. Then, when those restrictions were stripped out, she voted against the final bill.
Her work has earned her the trust of House leadership. On Thursday afternoon, she joined committee leaders and other top lawmakers for a meeting about the next steps on immigration reform.
But the bruising debate and its rancorous aftermath have made her job much more difficult. She must counter what she sees as ever-more distorted misconceptions about the border from the right while beating back angrier calls from the left to strip all funding from immigration enforcement agencies.
“It’s also on my side of the aisle, the danger of using blanket stereotypes and generalizations for all people inside agencies when Trump is the president,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say all Border Patrol agents are bad, and if there’s any good ones left, they should quit.”
“It kills me,” she added, “because I talk to the good ones.”
Escobar’s passion has earned her some bipartisan respect, particularly late last month, after she led an emotional moment of silence on the House floor for the tens of thousands of migrants who have died trying to seek asylum in the United States. (Republicans are quick to point out, however, that they disagree with her liberal policies.)
“In Spanish, the term is called confianza,” said Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., who presented his legislation about improving migrant health care to Pelosi alongside Escobar. “It’s like she’s in the family — somebody trustworthy, somebody you can feel comfortable around.”
Members also rallied around her earlier this month after a visit to the Clint detention facility, where she sparred with Homeland Security officials over derogatory posts about her in a Facebook group for current and former Border Patrol agents, then faced a handful of angry conservative protesters during a news conference.
As antagonists heckled “One-Term Veronica” and taunted Escobar for appearing to support migrant children more than El Paso’s children, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., yelled across the podium that “Veronica Escobar is the best goddamn congresswoman” to emphatic nods from her colleagues.
As the group of lawmakers drove away, the screams of the protesters fading behind them, Escobar could be seen through a van window, pressing her hands together in prayer and thanking the agents escorting them.