Blue Wave: Meet Veronica Escobar, the El Paso Democrat fighting Trump’s “racist” immigration policy

Escobar will likely be the first Latina to represent Texas in Congress. She’s sure she can turn the red state blue if she can persuade traditional non-voters turn out.

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This is the second in the series of New Statesman America profiles of the “Blue Wave” of new, young, progressive candidates in this year’s midterm elections. You can find the others here.

The city of El Paso, in western Texas, is the entry-point for many of the people and goods entering the US from Mexico. Every year more than ten million people cross back and forth on the four bridges linking this sedate desert town to the Mexican city of Juarez, visible beyond an electric fence and a narrow strip of the Rio Grande river.

The heavy presence of US state troopers and the whirr of helicopters overhead serve as a reminder that El Paso is the front-line of the Trump administration’s immigration crack-down. The population of the city and surrounding county is about 80 per cent Latino, and the seat – Texas’s 16th district – is considered safely Democratic.

Veronica Escobar, an El Paso county judge and former English and Chicano literature professor at the University of Texas, is running for the seat vacated by Beto O’Rourke, the youthful, charismatic Democrat who might just unseat Ted Cruz in the hotly-contested Texas Senate race.

If she is elected to Congress, Escobar, who is third-generation Mexican American and grew up on an El Paso dairy farm, will be the first Latina to represent Texas in Congress (she may be joined by another, Sylvia Garcia, who is running in Houston).

Escobar advocates for comprehensive immigration reform, arguing that rather than building border walls or deporting undocumented migrants the US needs to start creating new pathways to American citizenship and more opportunities for people to migrate legally.

“There’s an ebb and flow to migration that this country refuses to acknowledge or confront. And by not confronting, acknowledging or dealing with it, we’re not solving the problem,” she told me when we spoke on the phone.

“We have seen billions of dollars of spending on radically increasing the size of the border patrol, building a wall, sending drones. Communities like mine have become highly militarized and at some point, we have to acknowledge that enough is enough,” she said.

Although anti-immigration hardliners often associate rising immigration with high crime rates, Escobar pointed out that El Paso is one of the safest cities in the country. “We were safe before Donald Trump and many Republicans started demonizing the border,” Escobar said.

She is proposing offering a pathway to citizenship not only for the Dreamers – the name given to young people who were brought to the US undocumented as children, a group that was given protections by the Obama administration – but also for their parents and for other undocumented citizens.

“They are part of our communities. They are part of our workforce … they have contributed to the fabric and uniqueness of America,” she said. “There are people who will complain, and who will say: ‘well they need to get to the back of the line, they need to [migrate] the right way. What many people don’t understand or don’t want to recognize is that there’s no line for them to stand in. There’s no process for them to apply to.”

As well as giving undocumented citizens a chance to regularize their immigration status, she proposes increasing opportunities for economic migrants, such as by giving migrant farm labourers work permits, and expanding the conditions required to qualify for asylum in the US.

These proposals are wildly out-of-line with the prevailing political sentiment that carried Trump to the White House, and Escobar acknowledges it may be some time before she can even hope to negotiate comprehensive immigration reform. Until 2020, she sees her main role in Congress as providing a check to the White House and its “destructive” policymaking.

“Until our country takes this very racist, bigoted and, I believe, unfit-for-office individual out of the Oval Office, that is going to be our big challenge,” she told me.

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Escobar hopes that the wave of progressives running for Congress this year suggests a broader shift in American politics, but she also said she finds it “frightening” how many Republicans have refused to stand up to Trump’s “treasonous” policies.

“They’re pandering to a base that is spiralling in a very negative direction. And instead of working with their constituencies to try to change the direction, they are listening to some of the most hateful voices in the country,” she said.

As someone who has worked in local government for over a decade, as a county commissioner and judge, she says she is willing to cross party lines and has “always included Republicans in [her] core group of friends”.

What worries her, she told me, is that the kinds of Republicans she could work with, who are willing to debate and reach compromise with Democrats, are becoming “almost extinct”. “Until the Republican party decides to stand up to the racists in the party, it’s going to be very hard for this country to heal,” she said.

Escobar has been endorsed by the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which this year is backing 41 candidates. Should the Democrats succeed in flipping Congress in November, progressives will likely be leading the charge, and will emerge as a powerful force within the party. New Statesman America is profiling a selection of promising progressive candidates ahead of the midterms, to give readers a sense of the momentum building within the party’s left in reaction to Donald Trump’s presidency.

More than half of the progressives endorsed by the Progressive Caucus are women – a reflection of the unprecedented numbers of women running for office this year, the vast majority of whom are Democrats. Escobar says the Trump administration has created a “boiling point” for women.

“We’re living in a dark time in American history right now,” she said. “There’s no community that has more at stake than El Paso, Texas.” When Trump on the campaign trail said Mexican migrants were rapists and criminals, it was not just a personal insult for Escobar and many in her community: it signalled that they and their families were targets.

Escobar counts Beto O’Rourke, who has represented her district in Congress since 2013, as a “dear friend” and she has worked on his campaigns. Although El Paso is solidly Democratic, Texas has traditionally been a Republican stronghold. To beat Cruz, O’Rourke and other Texan Democrats will have to boost turnout among the state’s sizeable Hispanic population. It can be done: Texas’ demographics are changing fast.

“Texas is not a red state. It’s actually a non-voting state. There’s a lot of people who are already registered to vote who have chosen to stay home election after election,” she said, adding that she saw it a top priority for her and other candidates to encourage traditional non-voters to cast their ballot, and to encourage new citizens and young people to register to vote for the first time.

“I’ve been collaborating with our local Democratic party and with community leaders hundreds of miles from us in South Texas to communicate the urgency for the border … If all of us on the border turn out and vote 15 percentage points higher, then it will be the border that turns Texas blue,” Escobar said, her voice rising with emotion. “It will be the border that changes the direction of the state, and it will be a righteous victory. Because it is the border that has more at stake than any other Texas community.”

“The border is a special and magical place,” she added. “And it’s a place that deserves fierce and zealous advocates who are willing to fight for what is right.”

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.