Representative Veronica Escobar wanted her colleagues to see the conditions for themselves. It was a warm spring morning in El Paso, and the freshman congresswoman was taking four Democratic congresswomen—members of the House Homeland Security Committee—to visit a Border Patrol station in El Paso where hundreds of migrants, many of them Central American families seeking refuge in the U.S., were crammed into tan, semi-cylindrical tents. The still April air was choked with the odors of people who hadn’t showered in days, from diapers that had gone unchanged for too long. Bedraggled parents and worn-out children slept on hard concrete floors. Some had been there for almost a week after spending several days sleeping on rocks and gravel under a bridge. Representative Nanette Barragán, of California, later said she felt nauseated. Bonnie Watson Coleman, of New Jersey, said the scene was worse than refugee camps she had visited in Jordan.
This was the sixth delegation that Escobar had led to the border in her first hundred days in office, and the scenes of suffering had only heightened her outrage. “History will not look kindly on what’s happening today, and we will have to look ourselves in the mirror and ask ourselves what we did,” Escobar told an audience the next morning at a panel discussion held by the Aspen Institute in El Paso. As she spoke, she choked back tears. “Yesterday I took my colleagues to the area where all of these families are being detained. They’ve been in detention for over seven days, and I will never get the sound of those crying babies out of my head. I never will.”
During Escobar’s first months in Congress, El Paso found itself an unlikely stage for national politics as the Trump administration’s border and immigration policies played out in the U.S.-Mexico border’s biggest city. And then on August 3, a gunman drove more than 600 miles from his home in Allen to El Paso and opened fire with an AK-47 at a Walmart, killing 22 people and wounding dozens more. Later, he would tell police that his intent was to kill “Mexicans.” In a moment, Escobar became a face for a community in grief.
Escobar quickly linked the Walmart massacre to President Trump’s immigration rhetoric. “Words have consequences. The president has made my community and my people the enemy,” Escobar said two days after the shooting. “He has told the country that we are people to be feared, people to be hated.” It was a heady eight months for a freshman in Congress.
In January, Escobar, 50, succeeded Beto O’Rourke as the congressional representative for El Paso. She’s the first woman to hold the seat and, along with Houston’s Sylvia Garcia, one of the first two Latinas to represent Texas in Congress. In many ways, Escobar and O’Rourke are cut from the same political cloth. They’re both progressive Democrats who embrace their roles as defenders of the borderlands. Escobar and O’Rourke have been political allies for fifteen years; she campaigned for him when he ran for Senate against Ted Cruz, pushing O’Rourke not to take Hispanic voters for granted. She has endorsed him for president. But she came to Washington, D.C., with a different idea of how to play politics.
As a congressman, O’Rourke was openly disdainful of what many deride as “the game” in the Capitol. He vowed to serve no more than eight years in the House, never became involved in party fundraising, and voted against Nancy Pelosi’s reelection as minority leader in 2016. Escobar unapologetically embraces the game. She frequently fund-raises for the Democratic party and aggressively supports other Democratic candidates. “I need colleagues who share values so that we can push legislation. I’ve heard a lot about how awful it is to be in the minority. I don’t want to be there,” she says.
After the November elections, Escobar quickly came out in support of Pelosi’s bid for House Speaker, and she was rewarded with appointment to her top two committee choices: Judiciary and Armed Services. Escobar was also made assistant whip, the position responsible for helping Democratic leaders win support in the party caucus on key votes. Another bold-print line on her political résumé: she serves as co-chair of the Democratic Women’s Caucus in the House.
With Democrats in the majority in the House and Trump already making border security and immigration a centerpiece of his reelection campaign, Escobar is poised to be much more influential and powerful in Congress than O’Rourke ever was. As an El Pasoan, a Latina, and a longtime immigrant-rights and anti-corruption activist, Escobar is an apt foil for President Trump. But the game also carries risks. Washington, D.C., has a way of wearing down idealists and abrading the principles of even the most grassroots-minded politicians. That’s why some—O’Rourke comes to mind—avoid going anywhere near the swamp. If Escobar is to succeed—to confront power by seizing power—she has a good blueprint: her own early career in El Paso taking on an entrenched good ol’ boy system—and winning.
Escobar was born in El Paso in 1969 to Benjamin and Isabel Escobar, the fourth of five children. She grew up, along with her four brothers, in El Paso’s Lower Valley, a working-class, predominantly Hispanic rural enclave near the Rio Grande. Her family’s dairy farm, Escobar Dairy, was located nearby. Benjamin met Isabel when he was delivering milk to her door, in 1957. “So my mom married the milkman,” Escobar likes to say. Her father graduated with an engineering degree from Texas Western College (now the University of Texas at El Paso) and went on to be El Paso’s county engineer for thirty years, while still working at the dairy. In the mid-eighties, he clashed repeatedly with El Paso county judge Pat O’Rourke, Beto’s father, over county engineering projects. Escobar quit in the middle of a public meeting. “And so another irony of life,” Escobar says. “Pat O’Rourke’s son and Benjamin Escobar’s daughter end up being friends and political allies.”
Escobar earned a bachelor’s degree in English from UTEP and a master’s from New York University. She was fascinated by Chicano literature, particularly the border novel The Rain God, by El Paso native Arturo Islas, and the poetry of Pat Mora, another El Pasoan. Escobar’s plan was to seek a PhD at a West Coast university and embark on a life in academia. But in 1993, she came back to El Paso for what she thought would be a one-year stint to make some money teaching—and never left.
She took part-time teaching jobs at UTEP and El Paso Community College and hung out at poetry readings and other literary events. “I was having so much fun, but at the same time I felt this sense of growing xenophobia in the community,” Escobar says. Some prominent Democrats were pushing for increased border security and stricter immigration laws, employing language similar to what Trump would use decades later. In 1993 New York governor Mario Cuomo called U.S. asylum laws “a joke.” Soon after, President Bill Clinton proposed expanding the Border Patrol, saying, “We will not surrender our border to those who wish to exploit our history of compassion and justice.” In El Paso, a new Border Patrol sector chief named Silvestre Reyes launched a controversial approach to border enforcement called Operation Hold the Line. Reyes deployed four hundred Border Patrol agents to posts on the Rio Grande to effectively seal a portion of the border from would-be crossers. Hold the Line was a major shift from prior Border Patrol tactics, which relied on agents dispatched to neighborhoods and posted at checkpoints to detect and apprehend undocumented immigrants. Escobar protested the plan, viewing it as needless militarization of the border. But the operation was popular in El Paso; an exit poll of Democratic primary voters in February 1994 found that 84 percent supported the strategy.
Escobar also took on another Reyes proposal: long before Trump promised to build a border wall from sea to shining sea, Reyes, a Hispanic Democrat, wanted to build a wall in an area of New Mexico just west of El Paso. “And that’s when I thought, ‘I have to do something. I can’t believe this, this is not El Paso, this is not America,’ ” Escobar says. She joined a nonprofit called the Border Rights Coalition and eventually took a paid job as co-coordinator. Instead of taking up Reyes’s barrier proposal, the Clinton administration built a fourteen-mile fence near San Diego in 1993.
In 1995, Reyes left the Border Patrol to run for El Paso’s congressional seat, and Escobar soon joined the campaign of Jose Luis Sanchez, Reyes’s main rival for the Democratic nomination. “I was very fearful about the message we would send the country in sending an advocate for a wall to Congress,” Escobar says. Reyes won a narrow Democratic runoff victory over Sanchez and went on to serve sixteen years in Congress, until he was defeated in the 2012 Democratic primary by O’Rourke.
Sanchez’s loss led Escobar to consider quitting politics. “I remember thinking, you know, this is not for me. My heart was broken,” she said. Instead she focused on her academic career and started a family.
Escobar was drawn back to politics in 2001 by Ray Caballero, a veteran trial lawyer who was running for mayor on a platform of revitalizing El Paso. Caballero won the election and hired Escobar as his communications director. Though he was defeated in a reelection bid two years later, a group of young El Pasoans had coalesced around his vision of a more aspirational El Paso, one freed from a “pay to play” system where government contracts were dispensed in return for campaign contributions and other favors. In 2005, several Caballero acolytes, including O’Rourke, won election to the city council on an anti-corruption, urban renewal platform. O’Rourke defeated Anthony Cobos, a tax preparer who Escobar says was “part of a pay to play cancer in El Paso local government.”
The next year, it was Escobar’s turn to run for a seat—at the county commissioners court; she handily ousted a county commissioner who the next year would plead guilty to corruption charges.
Her joy was tempered by the election of Cobos as county judge and the realization that the patronage system was more resilient than the reformers had thought. But then in May 2007, five months after Escobar was sworn in, the FBI raided the county courthouse, targeting the offices of Cobos and two other county commissioners. The raid set off a years-long investigation into public corruption in El Paso, eventually yielding dozens of convictions of county- and school-elected officials as well as government contractors.
Even though he was under investigation the whole time, Cobos served out the remainder of his four-year term and wasn’t indicted until almost a year after he left office. He and Escobar frequently clashed in the four years they served together, particularly over the county’s purchasing practices, which Escobar viewed as part of the entrenched corruption. “It was definitely trial by fire,” she says. “It made me understand that when you don’t have a functioning organization with checks and balances, it’s easy to break and exploit.” Former El Paso state senator Eliot Shapleigh, an Escobar political ally, credits her with bringing attention to the depths of wrongdoing in local government.“While Cobos was taking bribes in the bathroom, she was out speaking about it,” Shapleigh said. Cobos would eventually plead guilty to federal corruption charges in 2014 and be sentenced to four years in prison. In a sign that things really had changed in El Paso, Escobar won election as county judge in 2010 and again in 2014.
In 2017, as her second term was winding down and her two kids were enrolled in college, Escobar made plans to leave office the following year and open a restaurant or coffee shop in downtown El Paso. Then her friend O’Rourke announced that he would give up his congressional seat to take on Cruz. With O’Rourke’s support, she easily won a six-candidate Democratic primary—tantamount to winning the general election in El Paso—running on an anti-Trump, pro-borderlands platform.
Immigration is Escobar’s signature issue in Congress. Perhaps that’s a natural fit for someone representing a border city inextricably linked to its counterpart across the Rio Grande, Ciudad Juárez. But Escobar has done more than just talk about the issue. Drawing on her background as a grassroots organizer, she’s brought dozens of Democrats to El Paso to see the effects of Trump’s border policies firsthand. El Paso has again become a major corridor for migrants, thanks to changing immigration patterns, and the Trump administration’s policies, such as the controversial “return to Mexico” program—whereby asylum-seekers must remain in Mexico while their claims are processed—have made the area a major flash point.
O’Rourke told Texas Monthly his successor has found a way to connect El Chuco—as El Pasoans affectionately call their city—to “the national conversation” over immigration: “She’s exactly what this country needs at this moment.”
And maybe that includes teaching Americans a bit of border slang on national television. During Trump’s State of the Union address in January, a CNN camera focused on her as Trump talked about Democrats and Republicans working together. Escobar said something out of the corner of her mouth to another Democrat seated to her right. Lip-readers on Twitter quickly determined that she had said, “No mames.” That’s a Spanish expression that most politely translates to “no way,” but is closer to “no [f—ing] way.” Two months later, asked if that’s indeed what she said, Escobar deflected. “That entire speech I had a number of moments of deep frustration. And I said a lot of things,” she said with a laugh.
Though Escobar makes no secret of her disgust with the Trump administration, like many border progressives she has to grapple with the fact that immigration agencies are major employers in El Paso. “Abolish ICE” has a different ring to it when your friends and family might be ICE agents. Indeed, her husband, Michael Pleters, was a longtime attorney for the Department of Homeland Security, representing the government in deportation proceedings. In May 2017, then–attorney general Jeff Sessions hired Pleters as an immigration judge in El Paso, where migrant advocates have long complained of one of the nation’s lowest rates for granting asylum. In April, the American Immigration Lawyers Association and American Immigration Council filed a complaint with the Justice Department alleging that El Paso immigration judges, including Pleters, had created such a “culture of hostility” toward migrants that the court was known as “the bye-bye place.” Escobar acknowledges her husband’s role causes her discomfort. “It’s hard. But I also know he’s got such a good heart, and he’s such a good human being. And it’s important to have someone like him in a position like that,” she says.
As the next two years unfold, Escobar wants to play a role in health care, climate change, education, investigations of the Trump administration, and a host of other issues on the Democratic agenda. But she knows her most valuable work lies with border and immigration issues, especially in the wake of a racist massacre in her hometown. “In my nine months in Congress, it is clearer than ever that this administration governs with cruelty,” Escobar said at the September 6 congressional hearing. “We must understand the human toll of these policies, the inhumanity and the indignities that immigrants suffer as we consider funding for the departments that execute those policies. And as for the anti-immigrant rhetoric, for many of us those words have become a matter of life and death.”
This article has been updated to correct an error. The refugee camps Bonnie Watson Coleman visited were in Jordan, not Turkey.