By Adam Willis, The Texas Tribune
The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans—and engages with them—about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
On an August morning in West Texas, a caravan rolled across the U.S.-Mexico border, passing through a logjammed checkpoint at the edge of El Paso and into Ciudad Juárez. Packed into a train of vehicles—two vans and seven SUVs—were 21 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, each of them following a new colleague, freshman U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar of El Paso.
Hailing from places as disparate as Washington state, New Hampshire and Kentucky, the Democratic representatives had convened on the edge of Texas to tour migrant detention centers and, crucially, to witness how immigration crackdowns on the southern border have pushed the strain of overcrowded facilities into neighboring Ciudad Juárez.
Over the last year, these kinds of official legislative visits to the border have become commonplace, and Texas’ border representatives have emerged as the de facto ambassadors of their distinctive homeland. At the eye of a political and humanitarian storm, a small group of Texans—four Democrats and one Republican—representing the border region in Washington have become the shepherds of their legislative body on the most charged issue of the day.
“I want to show the impact of the Trump administration’s policies on a community and on migrants,” Escobar told The Texas Tribune the day before she led the largest congressional tour to El Paso yet. “I want people to see that. I want them to speak to migrant families. I want them to speak to their lawyers, their advocates. I want them to see for themselves the consequences of what the president is doing.”
For members of Texas’ small border coalition, the country has arrived at a pivotal point in its history, and the future of the country’s immigration policy may be decided on the ground in their backyards.
“Sometimes my colleagues don’t understand what we mean by, ‘I live there,’” said U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo. “I drink the water. I breathe the air there, and that just gives us a very different perspective.”
He laughs—genially, he says—when colleagues pontificate on the state of the border crisis after paying the region only brief, official visits.
“They should respect our opinions a little better than assume that they know better after spending a couple hours in the district,” he said.
"People were going every week"
Each of these Texas members has a unique and personal relationship to their homes. Cuellar grew up the oldest of eight children to migrant farmers in Laredo. Democrat Vicente Gonzalez spent his childhood regularly passing back and forth across the border with his family. (For Gonzalez, the ease and frequency of theses trips have changed in recent years. He lives in McAllen, but he says he has not “rolled across the border” in more than 11 years, a precaution he says he’s adopted due to rising violence on the Mexican side.)
The lone Republican representing the border, U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, a former undercover CIA agent from Helotes, has unique insight on practices of human trafficking and human smuggling. U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, a Democrat who was born in raised in Brownsville, knows intimately the idiosyncrasies of the border at its southernmost point. And Escobar, whose family goes back three generations in El Paso, has committed her career in public life to serving not only her fellow El Pasoans, but also their neighbors in Ciudad Juárez.
Over the last year, these border members have watched as a kind of congressional tourism at the border has become political necessity. In July, progressive Democrats visited Clint facilities outside El Paso, where they decried squalid conditions and cruel treatment. When House Republican Minority Leader Mike McCarthy toured the border facilities in El Paso last October, he hailed the “magnitude of the border and the bravery of the officers who patrol it.” A cohort of nearly two dozen GOP congressmen recently toured huge swaths of the Texas border by helicopter. And, last week, Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi toured the border facilities near McAllen.
The volume of these visits over the last year has ballooned so much that Gonzalez says he has not been able to keep up.
“I had to quit going to the detention centers,” he said. “People were going every week, and I was like, ‘I can’t go to every one.’”
But Republicans and Democrats often head to the border with different aims.
“When Democrats come down, all they want to see is detention centers. When Republicans come in… they want to see pictures of drugs or guns that have been confiscated,” said Cuellar, who said his role is to bring a more balanced view.
Cuellar, the dean of the Texas border delegation, is a veteran ambassador of the region. He says that he has been trying to draw Washington’s attention to the treatment of migrants at the border for years, before Trump’s election. In 2014, as the number of migrant children crossing the U.S. border surged, Cuellar caught heat from members of his own party after he leaked photos to the Houston Chronicle exposing overcrowding and child detention orchestrated under President Barack Obama.
A Blue Dog Democrat who has straddled party lines for most of his career, Cuellar sees it as his responsibility to provide a balanced perspective of the border to members of both parties. His moderate approach, Cuellar argues, has helped him chart out a position of influence on Capitol Hill, and to build influential alliances with heavy-hitting Republicans and Democrats on the Senate side.
“It’s basically because they know I’m from here. I’m not one of these bomb throwers,” said Cuellar, whose conservatism on the border has also made him a progressive target. Politico once called him “the GOP’s Democrat on the border,” and he has more recently found himself in the crosshairs of the liberal group Justice Democrats.
“I go in and call things the way I see it,” he added.
But amid the chaos, confusion and misinformation of the border crisis, Escobar has emerged as the new Texas star. And while she has staked out territory closer to her party’s progressive wing, she has quickly proved herself a keystone of the Democratic caucus, showcasing a talent for uniting her party’s divergent ideological flanks.
Earlier this summer when House Democrats were split over a $4.5 billion border humanitarian aide package, Escobar played a central role in uniting separate factions of her party. Members of the House Progressive Caucus and Congressional Hispanic Caucus threatened to kill the bill over concerns that the Trump administration would twist its intent and put some of the money toward border enforcement rather than migrant aid.
But Escobar helped shoehorn amendments into the legislation that made it palatable for her Democratic colleagues. In a late-night speech on the House floor, Escobar pumped her fist and shouted over jeers from Republicans, propelling the bill through behind unified support from Texas Democrats, as well as the backing of Hurd, who bucked his party to vote in concert with his fellow border representatives.
(The victory was only symbolic, however; it died in the Republican-controlled Senate.)
“I gotta hand it to Veronica. She’s been doing a good job. She’s been inviting a lot of members to El Paso,” Cuellar said.“This education is so important.”
This month, another crisis struck Escobar’s district when a 21 year-old gunman drove 600 miles across Texas and fatally shot 22 people in an El Paso Walmart. Not long after the shooting, the gunman's motivations were laid bare in the discovery of an anti-immigrant, anti-Hispanic manifesto.
“The shooter came into our community because we are a Hispanic community and we have immigrants here,” Escobar told her fellow El Pasoans at a vigil after the shooting. “There are deadly consequences to bigotry, racism and hate.”
It was perhaps the most tragic manifestation of anti-immigrant, anti-Hispanic sentiment to show up in Escobar’s hometown. But Escobar says she has been defending El Paso’s pluralism her entire political life. She recalls that when she returned home from graduate school at New York University in 1993, she was shocked to find a different city than the one she had known growing up, when the border was universally embraced as the community’s greatest asset. At the time, the local Border Patrol sector chief was calling for the construction of a border wall to divide El Paso from Ciudad Juárez.
“This was 1993!” Escobar said, “I was really alarmed because the community felt like it had changed a little bit. Like there had been a shift.”
Escobar responded by joining a local immigrant rights group, her introduction to grassroots political organization.
“That had the most profound effect on my views and the way that I see migration and immigration,” said Escobar.
What followed was a long career in local politics, first as a county commissioner and then as the county judge. But she has watched regretfully how national distrust toward the border has grown. In 2008, despite local opposition backed by Escobar, the federal government did erect a wall in El Paso.
"Since then what has happened, unfortunately, is this continued erosion of the humanity of immigrants,” Escobar said. “We are now at a horrible low point in America where migrants are dehumanized to the point where children are put in cages.”
In the wake of the El Paso shooting, Escobar has again been thrust to the front of the national political conversation. She has passionately defended her home, and forcefully criticized the president, whom she blames for stoking the racist sentiments that motivated the massacre in her hometown.
“The president has made my community and my people the enemy,” she said. “He has told the country that we are people to be feared, people to be hated.”
And ahead of Trump’s visit to El Paso in the aftermath of the shooting, Escobar made clear that, unlike the many House colleagues she has introduced to her hometown, this was one Washington leader she would not abide.
“From my perspective, he is not welcome here,” she said. “He should not come here while we are in mourning.”
But with the shooting, revealing the true border—the reality of its contours, changes, and pains—has become even more urgent.
“I’m a third generation fronteriza—a third-generation woman of the border," she said. “El Paso has been safe for decades. Long before a wall was ever built. Long before the community was militarized in the way that it’s been militarized. We celebrate that.”
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