NBC News: Veronica Escobar made history in Congress. Now she's on the front lines of the border battle.
By Phillip Mena, Cora Cervantes and Suzanne Gamboa
EL PASO, Texas — When Rep. Veronica Escobar thinks of her hometown, what comes to mind is the more than 100-year-old dairy farm that generations of Escobars have owned and worked.
Escobar, who grew up in this border city on Texas’ westernmost tip, thinks of her father delivering milk even while working as the El Paso County engineer. She thinks of fun nights in high school in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, just a short walk across a bridge spanning the Rio Grande.
And she thinks of the many international gateways between the U.S. and Mexico, what she calls “arteries” for family, commerce, economy and the future.
What Escobar, 49, a Democrat, didn’t see growing up and living in El Paso was a city so teeming with violent crime that it had to be saved by building a border wall — something President Donald Trump called for in his State of the Union address.
“It is one of the greatest communities in all of America. The border is such a magical, complex place,” Escobar told MSNBC and NBC News in interviews over two days. “You know, it’s this place where two worlds are juxtaposed."
Those worlds — El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico — couldn’t be more different, but the ports of entry where pedestrian and vehicle traffic flows both ways are “symbols of unity and togetherness,” she said.
Escobar, a freshman Democrat, made history along with Rep. Sylvia Garcia, also a Democrat, in the 2018 midterm elections by becoming the first two Latinas elected to represent Texas in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Since Escobar arrived in Washington, El Paso has become an epicenter of Trump’s immigration battle.
Beyond erecting thicker, higher and more barriers to close off the border, the city is next door to Tornillo, Texas, where hundreds of young migrant children were held for months in tents.
Beyond that, before Trump’s administration told the public it was separating children from their parents on the border, it ran a pilot project in El Paso that took the children into government custody.
That has thrust Escobar and her border city in the middle of an epic tug of war between Congress and the executive branch.
But she was in a similar fight before, one that put her on a political track that led to Congress.
CLIMBING ALFALFA PLANTS, JOINING THE POLITICAL RANKS
After earning a Bachelor’s degree in English literature at the University of Texas, El Paso, Escobar left El Paso to study at New York University.
She earned her master’s there in the same subject and then returned home with a plan to earn a little money and head to the West Coast to study Chicano literature, earn a doctorate and join academia.
But back in El Paso, she found her hometown in the throes of a national debate over immigration.
The Border Patrol was sending agents into Bowie High School in El Paso, to check whether students were citizens and to follow them to their homes in a neighborhood known as the Segundo Barrio, also right on the border, Escobar said.
The actions led to a lawsuit, and changes were made but talk began of a building a wall in El Paso.
Escobar said she saw members of a local group, the Border Rights Coalition, fight back. They documented abuses, educated people about the ongoing debate, connected them with classes in English as a Second Language and citizenship, and taught them their rights.
“I thought, I’ve got to do something,” she said, so she volunteered with the Border Coalition and from there things “snowballed.” She was soon volunteering to help on a congressional campaign in 1996.
The candidate, her friend Jose Luis Sanchez, lost his bid, leaving her heartbroken and wanting to end her dip into politics.
But she couldn’t stay away. She continued volunteering for campaigns over the next decade. Then in 2005, three friends, including then political neophyte Beto O’Rourke, ran for city council and won.
The city’s mayor Ray Caballero, who Escobar worked for as communications director, then turned to Escobar.
“Mayor Caballero, right after they won, called me and bullied me over an entire summer, saying ‘It’s your turn.” She turned him down repeatedly, despite his many calls and encouragement to seek a county office.
“I kept telling him I’d recruit someone to run," Escobar said. "He finally one day told me, ‘How can you ask other people to do something that you are unwilling to do?’”
Escobar was elected to her first public office, El Paso County commissioner, in 2006.
She moved on, winning election to El Paso County judge, the county’s top executive overseeing the commission. She was re-elected and remained in the job until resigning to run for Congress in 2018.
Escobar, O’Rourke and two other friends on the City Council became known as the “progressives” for their agendas for the city.
“We were fighting for the ‘El Chuco’ we knew we deserved,” she said, referring to the Mexican-American name for El Paso, which comes from the pachuco lifestyle of the 1930s and ’40s that originated in the city and was exported to the western United States.
“We were part of a generation that left El Paso for better opportunity, a generation that felt like, why are the jobs elsewhere? Why is the quality of life elsewhere? Why are the great downtowns elsewhere? Why are the great neighborhoods elsewhere? Why hasn’t anybody been fighting for that? For us?”
At a recent town hall in El Paso, Isabela Escobar, Escobar’s mother, watched with pride while her daughter fielded some tough questions from constituents with aplomb. The self-assurance in her daughter is not new, she said.
“She was a traviesa,” Isabela Escobar said, using a Spanish word that means playful and a little mischievous.
“She would climb the high stacks of alfalfa when she was 3 years old. I don’t know how she ever got up there, but she used to run around on the farm,” she said. "In my culture, we say you show who you are going to be when you are a little girl or boy. She did.”
THE MOST DIVERSE CONGRESS TACKLES THE BORDER BATTLE
Escobar joins the most diverse Congress ever elected, including a record number of women, the first Muslim women, the first Palestinian-American, the first Somali-American, the first Native American women, the first Ecuadorian-American, a slew of millennials and the youngest woman ever to serve in Congress.
That, Escobar said, puts pressure on her and others to make sure they are not known as the “onlys.”
Escobar’s first hire was her chief of staff, who is Latino. “As members of Congress, if we expect diversity, then we have to live it," she said. "And we’ve got to nurture that. We’ve got to mentor that. Whether it be elected offices, appointed offices or hired staff."
Her introduction to Congress was a baptism by fire.
Soon after the celebrations of their swearing-ins, members were faced with the government shutdown and the wrestling match with the president over funding for the border wall.
Escobar was one of 19 Democrats to vote against the $333 billion spending bill that reopened the government. It included $1.4 billion for border barriers, as well as more money for immigration detention beds and other immigration enforcement.
Escobar said that she is not against certain types of fencing and enforcement altogether but that it needs to be better thought out so that it is targeting the drug trade and other threats but still protects wildlife and the environment. She said fencing in El Paso now is rusting and is making “our country look like a junkyard.”
Escobar told The Hill that she rejected the bill’s “underlying motivation about a crisis at our southern border” and the erroneous narrative portraying the border as a problem.
At the town hall in El Paso, Escobar said she questioned the $192 million included in the bill for a central processing center to be built in El Paso for Customs and Border Protection to process arriving Central American immigrants. She also is questioning the bidding process.
She also objects to allocating funds to build border barriers, which could mean cutting money for military support and projects at Fort Bliss, including for a new William Beaumont Hospital on the military post.
This is all happening after investments in Border Patrol have tripled, while apprehensions of people on the border — used by Border Patrol to measure the level of illegal immigration — have dropped, she said.
“If I did not say enough is enough, who would?” Escobar told the town hall crowd. “So that day, I voted to say enough is enough.”