U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar has had a blessed political career.

The El Paso Democrat served as county commissioner and county judge before joining a six-candidate field in the 2018 Democratic Primary, winning with 61% of the votes to succeed Beto O’Rourke.

El Paso’s first woman and the first of two Texas Latinas in Congress, Escobar was then elected leader of the 2018 class of new Democratic representatives, which put her close to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who drew her closer to the House leadership.

Now, she doesn’t serve on the usual two committees but on four, all important appointments, thanks to Pelosi: Judiciary, Armed Services, Ethics and the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis.

With a new Democratic president and the times being what they are, it’s a good time to be a woman, Hispanic and a Democrat in the U.S. House, notwithstanding the woes posed by COVID-19 and the thousands of children fleeing to the U.S. from troubled and dangerous Latin American countries.

Then, there’s the ongoing fallout from the unprecedented Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol while Escobar and her colleagues were inside to decide on the true outcome of the presidential election.

Escobar’s predecessor and close friend Beto O’Rourke promised not to serve more than three terms in Congress, but Escobar plans to stay awhile.

“I want to work as long as I’m effective for the community,” she said. “That’s the way that I saw my role in county government as well. What a lot of folks don’t know is that I had no intention of running for reelection for El Paso County judge.”

What she was planning to do was to start a small business and spend more time with her family.

“It wasn’t until Beto announced he was running for U.S. Senate that I thought about continuing in public service in a different capacity,” she said. “But I am a big believer that you need to do everything possible for as long as you possibly can, and then get out of the way.”

That time is probably way down the road, and Escobar is being called on these days to speak for the party, the border and even, it seems, the president.

The March 24 editorial page of the New York Times carried a long opinion piece by Escobar under a headline that read: “I Represent El Paso. What I’m Asking for Doesn’t Include Open Borders.”

Escobar sat down with El Paso Inc. for more than an hour last week in a rare face-to-face interview to talk about everything under the El Paso sun, from the future of the filibuster, the Texas governor’s proposed voting restrictions, “Dreamers” and what to do about all those children crossing the border.

Q&A: U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar

Q: Topic No. 1 to many here on the border is the overwhelming number of unaccompanied children seeking asylum in the U.S. since the defeat of President Trump in November. Is there any solution on the horizon other than putting up more tents or closing the border as Trump did?

Absolutely. And believe me, this has been an issue top of mind for me, not just since Jan. 20 when President Biden was inaugurated. Going back to 2014, many of us here have been doing our best to help migrant families as they’ve been released from federal custody.

The greatest example of that goodwill is Ruben Garcia of Annunciation House. It’s important to be clear and remind the American public that this is not a new issue.

The increase in unaccompanied children actually began in September of last year, per data from the Border Patrol. It did not begin with this president.

Unfortunately, it is a consequence of decades of failed foreign policy and failed domestic policy. We’ve had over the last few decades a focus only on the border as our approach to migration.

And so the idea was, and this is under Democrats and Republicans alike, build walls, buy drones, hire more personnel and somehow that will solve the problem. The reality is migration doesn’t ever stop, and immigration is a net positive for our economy.

Although the data shows that immigrants provide a positive economic impact, many people prefer to focus on the challenges that come with new arrivals.

We have not paid attention to anything outside of our borders in our hemisphere in any sustained, strategic, thoughtful way. President Obama made the attempt after the 2014 numbers that we saw. If you’ll recall in 2014, the Rio Grande Valley was seeing a significant number of Central American families.

They were flown to El Paso for processing. And what President Obama decided to do was engage Central America, which is where the families were coming from. He started the Central American Minors Program so that children who want to reunite with their families have access to a legal pathway. He started in-country processing, but all of that was done away with by President Trump.

So we’re seeing the consequences of a number of unsustained attempts at addressing the root causes. First and foremost, we have to have a thoughtful, urgent strategy with our neighbors to the south – the countries in the Northern Triangle and Mexico.

Q: What’s the immediate goal?

In the short term, what the Biden administration is doing is trying to get those kids out of Customs and Border Protection custody and into Health and Human Services custody and into the arms of their families as quickly as possible.

About 85% of those kids have a close family member in the United States, and about 45% have a parent here.

Q: What happens to kids who don’t have families here. Most of them can’t make their case for asylum, so do they get sent back?

Yeah. About 15% of the children in U.S. custody don’t have a close family member here. They don’t have a sponsor. They’ve made the journey on their own to begin a new life. Most of them will be repatriated to their home country.

Q: There are reports that many of the children really aren’t children at all, but young adults with ties to drug and human trafficking cartels trying to grow their networks in the U.S. How big a problem is that?

We always need to be as aware as possible of who’s coming into our country. That’s very important, and we do need to make sure, and I want to state that unequivocally, that we need to make sure we are being as thorough in our investigative process as possible.

But even this morning, the numbers that I heard during a visit to the processing center, while it’s definitely a problem, it is not an overwhelming number.

Q: What’s the status of the migrant children and babies who were separated from their parents under the Trump administration and are now lost in bureaucratic limbo, in custody and disconnected from their families?

Those are some of the more tragic cases – the kids who were separated from their parents as infants, who cannot provide the kind of information that the federal government needs to reunite them. This was a significant human rights abuse committed by the Trump administration, something so abhorrent that it’s hard to imagine that happened in the modern-day era on American soil at the hands of our government.

There are lawyers and groups of folks working to try to find their family members. I am very worried that there will be hundreds of them.

Q: Some look at the millions of dollars we are spending to house and care for the unaccompanied kids and others who walked hundreds of miles to find a haven and say, “Enough is enough. We’ve done our share.” How would you reply to that?

As I mentioned in the first response, what we are seeing today are the consequences of years, decades in fact, of America not getting this right and not looking at herself in the mirror and asking, "What have we done to contribute to this challenge that we’re facing today?"

So let’s talk about what we’ve done to contribute to the problem, because we have to look at what we are doing well and what we are doing that is contributing to the problem.

Over the years, I have spent a lot of time talking to families and children asking them some pretty fundamental questions: How did you get here? Where are you going? Where does your family member work?

The four areas I hear most frequently? Agriculture, meatpacking, construction and hospitality – restaurants, basically.

Q&A: U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar

Q: Why is that important?

The United States has a long history of depending on migrant labor, and specifically, depending on the labor of the undocumented. It has helped keep companies profitable.

It has helped keep food on our table, and they have contributed by paying taxes, becoming a part of the American fabric. To a large extent, studies show that they are more law abiding than native-born Americans.

And yet, when their family members want to be reunited with them, when their children want to be back in the arms of their parents, or when spouses want to once again live together after years of their partner or their parent living here and contributing, the American public says we’ve had enough.

Q: Do you think there’s anything the U.S. can gain by working with Mexico?

The Trump administration approach was, unfortunately, not a diplomatic one. What we saw during the last four years were threats of tariffs. The Biden administration is taking the diplomatic approach.

We are going to have to play the role of investor but also be an enforcer of accountability with our neighbors to the south, whether it’s Mexico or the Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala) that for decades have known about human trafficking operations that have only grown more sophisticated, especially over the last four years.

When you shrink legal pathways, what you do is force people into illegal pathways when they feel they have no alternative at home. So they have to flee their neighborhood, their family, their language, their country, their history, their roots, and go to a place where they know they’re not wanted.

The question is how do we work with those countries to ensure that we offer them the help they need and hold them accountable? That includes Mexico.

Q: This seems like an era of migration. We’ve seen almost the same thing in Europe and the Middle East. The causes are different – warfare and destruction – but the problem seems to be very much the same.

It is. That’s part of my resistance to the term “crisis on the border” and why I’ve tried to redirect people to the “crisis in Central America.” One of the first trips that I took overseas with my Armed Services Committee was to Jordan and Iraq.

I wanted to see the Jordanian-Syrian border, presumably one of the most dangerous borders in the world, where more than a million refugees went into Jordan – a country with far fewer resources than we have and a far greater challenge than we have ever faced.

I wanted to see their border, and there was not a wall in sight. Border security is done with technology funded largely by the American taxpayer. I then wanted to see their processing center.

So, you know, I just came from the central processing center in Northeast El Paso. In 2019, we were seeing migrants and you will remember the photos and the stories of migrants sleeping under bridges on rocks in triple-digit temperature. Humanity kept in incredibly inhumane conditions for months at a time.

So, with that context, I asked our Jordanian hosts to show us where their central processing center is. We drove to it.

There they said, “Here’s where we hook people up, connect them to housing. Here’s where we connect them to families who volunteer to help with their transition. And here’s where we connect their children to education.”

It’s a completely different approach for a country with far fewer resources. Then I asked how long it takes to conduct this processing. Our tour guide said, almost sheepishly, that it is taking several hours, but they’re trying to make it more efficient.

I want you to contrast that with the way that our country is dealing with this situation. What that tells me is we can do better. We should do better.

Q: Can this surge of immigrants legitimately be blamed on President Biden?

I have admonished many members of the national media as they have asked me that question. In fact, there’ve been times when I’ve said, “OK, we’re on week three now of asking the question, Are people coming because Joe Biden’s a nice guy?”

When are we going to get past this and start talking about solutions? It’s been a very frustrating conversation with the national media about the increase in children at our front door. And indeed many of my Republican colleagues prefer to focus on that question than on what we do going forward and how we finally address this once and for all in a meaningful, humane and compassionate way.

That’s the long answer. The short answer is no.

Q&A: U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar

Q Issue No. 2 for a lot of people is probably the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Now you have cherry blossoms and barricades around the White House and the Capitol. How did we get here, and do you have serious concerns about the future?

I do, I do. This is a really heartbreaking topic for me. I don’t think any of us has seen in our lifetime or understood just how fragile our democracy is. Our Constitution can either be a piece of paper or it can truly be a symbol of our values and who we are as a nation.

The Jan. 6 attack was a long time in coming, and there was a building up to that moment. And I’ve thought a lot about how we’ve gotten here.

A lot of things have brought us to this moment: the breakdown of civil society and folks getting together in groups and organizations and working together. I think about Rotary Clubs and other organizations that come together for the common good and how they have shrunk over the years.

There’s also been the breakdown of good, strong, local newspapers that report on everything that’s happening in your community, that make you feel connected to what’s happening.

I think of the proliferation of cable TV news that I don’t see as a positive. I think of the incredible irresponsibility of Fox News. During the impeachment trial, I remember watching a lot of Fox News to see what other folks were watching – I prefer to read newspapers – and I was shocked. I saw Fox News as an arm of Russian propaganda, much of what we were told in closed hearings, much of what I was learning in high-level briefing warnings about propaganda that was intended to divide us as a country and that was intended to help create basically an autocracy.

I was seeing it broadcast on Fox News, and I was hearing it come out of the mouth of the president of the United States of America.

And, so, there has been a slow evolution. The last four years have been a downward spiral.

What we had on Jan. 6 was thousands of people descending on Washington, D.C., at the invitation of the president. We saw news stations pushing and politicians and the president pushing out a big lie that our election had been rigged and stolen, despite the evidence, despite the Trump campaign’s repeated efforts in Trump friendly courtrooms to prove the big lie.

Q: There are about 9,000 “Dreamers” in El Paso hoping for the resurrection of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. You and congresswoman Norma Torres of California are working for a temporary solution – a bill that would keep their information confidential and protect them from deportation. So let’s talk about that bill and about the “Dreamers.”

We would not need that bill if the “Dreamers” were on a path to citizenship. That bill was introduced when the Trump administration was threatening to deport “Dreamers,” using information they willingly provided to the federal government in exchange for protected status.

You look at poll after poll and most Americans believe that children who were brought here and had no part in the decision, who’ve been law abiding and meet the criteria laid out in the legislation deserve to be on a path to legal status.

We’ve passed the Dream of Promise Act. This is the second time that we passed it out of the House. We passed it in 2019, and we passed it again a few weeks ago. It was a bipartisan piece of legislation that passed out of the House. But in the Senate, because of the filibuster, even one of the most uncontroversial pieces of immigration legislation has a slim chance of passing.

Q: Would you like to see the filibuster eliminated?

Absolutely. It is a relic of the past, and if you look at the roots of the filibuster, it was a tool created to stop civil rights legislation.

I’m a big believer in one person, one vote. So I don’t support the Electoral College. If you win an election by one vote and can pass a bill by one vote in the U.S. House, there should not be a different set of rules in the Senate. We should be able to pass legislation with one vote. The filibuster is now an instrument of obstruction.

Q&A: U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar

Q: We had drive-thru voting in El Paso as a protection against COVID-19. Would Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s proposals restrict such voting practices in El Paso and elsewhere in Texas?

The proposals brought forward by the governor and by the Republican-controlled legislature are pretty frightening to me. I think it will. They’re essentially allowing harassment at the polls. They’re allowing people basically to film and target anyone they believe might be voting fraudulently.

I don’t know if that passed because I’ve not been able to keep up as closely as I’d like to with what’s happening day by day in the state legislature. But suffice it to say, there is an effort to make voting as hard as possible for people.

Q: President Biden and Democratic members of Congress have pushed through a $1.9 trillion surplus package and now want to spend $2.5 trillion on an infrastructure splurge the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the post-war years in the early 1950s. What are your thoughts on and concerns about such a spending package? What do you like the most?

El Paso has long had colonias and communities on the outskirts of town in the county, and as county judge, I knew only too well how difficult and expensive it is to bring water and wastewater services to neighborhoods that are far away from the center of town. And yet it’s an imperative.

We have to do it, but it was cost prohibited for a local government like our county government, where the needs are enormous and your budget is minuscule. So I had a great conversation with Sen. Tom Carper and his team this morning about the water infrastructure that will be in this package.

In terms of the match part that keeps communities like ours out of accessing federal funds because you have to put up a large match – 40%. How do you come up with that money? Well, the approach will be for economically disadvantaged communities like ours that the match would be 10%. And, in some cases, it could possibly be forgivable.

I also am very excited about what this could mean in terms of our own ambition for transit, mass transit and easing the burden off of the local property tax base and putting it more on the federal government.

Q: Will it pass and are you worried about the debt if it does?

I am concerned about paying off the debt, and I believe we need tax reform. I don’t think now is the time to act in any way other than in a bold, ambitious way for our country – our roads, our bridges, our infrastructure that are falling apart.

We’ve seen the digital divide between those kids who have been at home (because of COVID-19) without broadband versus those kids who do have broadband. We ultimately pay the price.

Our ports of entry I consider critical infrastructure, and I want to direct funding towards them as well. We have to do this. This is critical, and by reforming the tax code, we can.

Q: Where are we as far as COVID-19 and the efforts going on in El Paso to curtail it and free us up?

My urgency has been two-fold. One, creating a binational plan, not just for COVID but for future pandemics. I have had multiple conversations with Dr. Anthony Fauci and others about the need for the federal government to understand the unique nature of border communities, our interdependence and the fact that we need one another and to have our borders open to safe and secure travel and commerce.

It was very clear to me from the onset that President Trump was deeply uninterested in this. We didn’t even have a national plan, much less a binational plan. So after the election and after it became clear that President Biden would be the president, I called Dr. Fauci again and I said, “It’s me again! And I want you to elevate this, please, to the task force level.” He said he would.

Second, I’ve had a number of conversations with folks at the White House about the need to think about binational communities in a unique way. And I completely understand and support their priority, which is vaccinations for all Americans. But as we think globally, we need to think about our neighbors closest to us because it’s advantageous to us to make sure they’re as safe as we are.

Q&A: U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar

So the binational COVID plan has been a priority for me. But, also, ever since the president was sworn in, it was getting as many vaccines to El Paso as possible and getting resources to ensure that some of our most vulnerable populations have access to the vaccine. That’s folks who don’t have access to transportation, computers or laptops to sign up for the vaccines.

So we’ve worked with the Biden administration, and we’re able to bring in some pretty significant funding, I think about $12 million, for our Federally Qualified Health Centers and vaccines directly to our clinics that wouldn’t take away from the city’s effort, so that it wouldn’t be an either/or situation.

Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at dcrowder@elpasoinc.com or call (915) 630-6622.

Updated April 10, 2021: Due to a transcription error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly quoted U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar as saying, "raped and stolen." She said, "rigged and stolen."


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