“El Paso is a shining example of the goodness that comes with choosing to care”
In 2019 El Paso, Texas became the site of the deadliest anti-Latino massacre in recent U.S. history. Congresswoman Veronica Escobar represents El Paso as part of the 16th Congressional district in Washington, D.C. In Atlantik-Brücke’s Transatlantic Call she speaks about the emotional and political difficulties in dealing with the attack.
Listen to the conversation:
Interview: Michael Werz
Congresswoman Escobar, you are one of two Latinas from Texas who for the first time in American history have been elected to serve in the U.S. Congress. Tell us a little bit about how the reactions were in El Paso and also in Washington, D.C.
About 85 percent of the El Paso community is Hispanic, specifically of Mexican descent. It did take a long time for us to get as many Hispanics elected in El Paso. It’s a recent phenomenon. I have the tremendous privilege of having served in local government for over a decade, and I have been very privileged to have such strong support from the community throughout my political carrier.
What is especially important to me is that young Latinas get to see women that look and sound like them and have the same roots and heritage in positions of authority. It allows them to understand that they too can be at the leadership table and that they can also accomplish whatever they set their minds out to do.
The 116th Congress is historically the most diverse Congress ever. It is long overdue. Washington and Congress badly need the diversity of voices, thoughts, and backgrounds. This diversity makes a democracy strong and healthy. We need more women and women of color until we adequately reflect the percentages in the country.
Washington and Congress badly need the diversity of voices, thoughts, and backgrounds. This diversity makes a democracy strong and healthy.
This is your first term in Congress. However, Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, has recently elevated you to a democratic leadership position. How did you manage to become a senior politician in your first two years in Congress?
I was elected by my freshman colleagues to the freshman leadership position. I have been so incredibly fortunate to have received tremendous support from the speaker and my colleagues from the moment that I walked in. One of my goals early on was to build relationships. I have been long enough in politics and government to understand the obvious: You don’t get anything done without bringing people along with you. You can’t pass bills, and you can’t create change unless you have strong relationships with your colleagues.
The other component that created a path for me was what was happening in El Paso in 2019. El Paso was at the epicenter of really horrific and abhorrent anti-immigrant policies coming from the Trump administration. It was important to me that my colleagues could see what was happening, that they bore witness to it, that they talked to people on the ground affected by it. We brought over a dozen of congressional delegations, almost 70 percent of Congress, to El Paso in 2019. Almost every other weekend we had a group of members of Congress coming to El Paso. We took some of them over the border to Mexico so that they could meet with the refugees being denied entry into the United States. We took them to hospitality centers in our community where we were caring for the refugees. We also took them to the sites where the children who died in American custody were apprehended. My colleagues saw how hard I work for my community, for the caucuses, and for the values that America was founded on.
El Paso was at the epicenter of really horrific and abhorrent anti-immigrant policies coming from the Trump administration.
A horrible mass shooting occurred at a Walmart Supercenter in the city of El Paso on August 3rd of 2019. The attacker killed 22 people and injured 26 others; this was the deadliest anti-Latino attack in recent U.S. history. You had a town hall meeting during the shooting. Can you share with us what your immediate thoughts were when you heard the news?
The massacre happened after months of trauma where we had to face up against the anti-immigrant policies that were being executed in our community. As the year progressed, all our leaders were working day and night trying to help the very vulnerable migrants coming to our community. In many ways we were showing the country exactly how we should be treating vulnerable refugees.
In the midst of all of this, on a day when I was having my town hall meeting and speaking to my constituents in a wonderful discussion, my staff approached me and told me that there had been a shooting. It was shocking. At first, there was a moment of disbelief. I didn’t know how bad it could be. I urged my constituents to go home, to stay at home and to be safe. Then I rushed backed to my district office. Almost within the hour we found out that a number of people had been killed. I intuitively felt in my gut and in my heart that the shooting was driven by hatred and racism.
I intuitively felt in my gut and in my heart that the shooting was driven by hatred and racism.
When the gunman’s pamphlet was made public and he confessed to the police that he drove to El Paso in order to slaughter Mexican immigrants, the shock didn’t wear off for a long time. We had a press conference that afternoon with the governor of the state of Texas. He pointed to mental illness regarding what was fueling the gunman. We know statistically that the mentally ill are more likely to be victims of crime and not perpetrators of crime. To be honest with you, I felt tremendous anger and frustration. The weight of the president’s words and of his horrific immigration policies had come to bear down on the community in the most violent and most nightmarish way through the slaughter of innocent people.
As I learned the stories of the victims’ families and just struggled to come to grips with the injustice, it made me realize that El Paso was a very important community in this country because of what we had to bear. But even in that really awful and painful period one thing absolutely stands out more than anything and makes me proud of my community: Our generosity, kindness, good will, love, and the way how we treat one another remind me that in our most challenging moments we make a choice about how we treat people. El Paso has emerged as a shining example of the goodness that comes with choosing to care for people.
Taking a step back, did we underestimate the potential of white nationalism in Texas and in the United States at large? How did we get to this point that a place like El Paso becomes ground zero for such a horrific and complicated policy conversation?
I am still struggling with understanding how our country has allowed this and for this point to emerge in our history. We are at the very low point and at a very dark place in American history right now. What we’ve seen in America unfortunately over the last few years is not just some of our most significant leaders, including the president and led by the president of the United States, be derelict in their responsibility to lead us out of this darkness, but we have actually seen them pull us deeper into that darkness. And we are going to have to take a long look at ourselves in the mirror as a country and ask ourselves if this is acceptable and if this is who we want to be. Everyone in America has a very important role to play in ensuring that we move out of this darkness.
We are at the very low point and at a very dark place in American history right now.
There is obviously the urgent matter of coming up with policy solutions and legislation to make sure that future mass shootings are hopefully prevented. What is your thinking with regard to the legislative deadlock related to gun control?
The House of Representatives has bipartisan commonsense gun violence prevention legislation. We even came back from our August recess early in order to pass more legislation. We have been having these debates on the House floor. We have been passing bills through committees and they have all landed on the Senate’s side. One person, the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, prevents those pieces of legislation from being debated and being sent to the president to be signed into law. It is deeply frustrating that one person is able to hold up all of that legislation. To see our legislation essentially just pile up on the desk of one person is disheartening. But we have to keep pushing, we have to keep educating the American public, we cannot allow the public to be complacent or to lose heart.
You have a Republican mayor in El Paso, and you have a Republican colleague in Congress from the district next door, Will Hurd, in Texas-23. How are your Republican colleagues reacting and what are they saying about the stalemate that they are seeing, which is mainly, as you described, due to the leadership of their own party?
That has been additionally frustrating to me. My neighbor to the east, Will Hurd, who has recently announced that he is retiring from Congress, used to be someone that Democrats could count on to be a moderate voice and someone who was willing to cross the aisle and work together. But now he has set his sights on what is going to happen to him after retirement, and he has been pretty much in lockstep with the president. So, we can’t count on him to be bipartisan on many of these issues anymore because he has a different career path ahead of him.
And the mayor of my community, who is Republican, has signed on to the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ call to Congress to pass commonsense gun violence prevention legislation. Now, he also has a very good relationship with our Republican governor, who has yet to do anything legislatively on gun violence prevention.
You are a member of the Armed Services Committee which is allocating the use of military funds and personnel. It was highly controversial that the president decided to mobilize U.S. troops to the U.S.-Mexican border because it was not clear to many that this was a national emergency that warranted such action. What was your take on this situation and what is the status quo right now along the border?
One of the biggest challenges that I have with my Republican colleagues and their constituents who believe that sending troops or building a wall is good public policy is that they have bought into the myth that asylum seekers or undocumented immigrants are a national security threat. As leaders in Congress, we need to recognize that a mother with a baby who is fleeing violence in Central America and coming to our doorstep, knocking on our door and seeking asylum, is not a national security threat. We have to think about the movement of people and the laws that govern that movement in a different way. We need to have secure borders. But there is a smart way to do it. A wall is not going to fundamentally change the fact that Central American refugees and Mexican refugees and Cuban refugees are arriving at out front door.
We need to recognize that a mother with a baby who is fleeing violence in Central America and coming to our doorstep, knocking on our door and seeking asylum, is not a national security threat.
Traditionally, the Latino community in the United States and also Latino Representatives have not been overly engaged in national security policy, international affairs, and even less in the transatlantic arena. But you are scheduled to visit Germany in over a month to visit the Munich Security Conference. And, very interestingly, you have invited the co-chair of the German Green Party, Robert Habeck, to visit you in El Paso. What are you hoping will be his main takeaways when he visits El Paso for a day and a half and then flies back to Berlin and relays his experiences at the U.S.-Mexican border?
I am very excited about the Munich Security Conference and also very excited about the visit next week. These are shared experiences. I have a lot to learn from my German counterpart, and you all have a lot to learn from us as well. We grow as leaders, as policymakers, as people on this planet, when we share those experiences and we look to one another for support and for solutions. What is important to me about the visit for next week is that I believe we are going to continue to see migration occurring across the globe at unprecedented levels and we have to come together to address the root causes, obviously climate change and poverty. At the same time, we have to educate our communities because cynical politicians will use migration as a tool for fear. We have to combat that cynicism and that division and build a bridge of greater understanding, a bridge of solutions and ideas. I hope that this is the beginning of a more meaningful conversation.
Michael Werz is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C.
The television network PBS has produced a documentation about El Paso worth watching which you can find here.