What Should Democrats Do to Help Children at the Border?
On Tuesday, as the Trump Administration returned a hundred children to dangerously neglectful conditions at a Border Patrol facility in Clint, Texas, and announced the resignation of the acting head of Customs and Border Protection, House Democrats prepared to vote for a four-and-a-half-billion-dollar humanitarian-aid package to help immigrants at the border. But supporting the aid package was not as straightforward as it might seem, with members of the Progressive Caucus expressing concern that any money supplied to Border Protection would inevitably aid Donald Trump’s immigration agenda.
Veronica Escobar, a Democrat from Texas’s Sixteenth Congressional District, represents the city of El Paso, which is about twenty miles from Clint. Escobar, who was elected to the seat last November, replacing Beto O’Rourke, has been outspoken on the issue of child separations, and complained to Customs and Border Protection about the conditions in Clint. I spoke by phone with the congresswoman on Tuesday afternoon, as the House was considering the bill. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed Border Patrol’s treatment of children, what Texas Republicans are saying about the immigrant-detention crisis, and why members of Congress are having trouble getting information on the situation at the border.
Do you have any sense of why some of these children were moved back to Clint?
I do not. We have been trying to get more information. We actually first heard that that might happen last night. We have been working very hard to try to get information and have not been successful.
Who are you in touch with to get information, and how responsive are they? What is your process?
Our process is that the district office tries to get information at the local level, and we give that some time, out of respect to those local folks. They are many times pretty quickly responsive. But when we need information right away and we are not getting the information we need, we then go higher up the chain. If we have not heard back, I may at some point this afternoon reach out to folks to try to find out what is going on, and why they would be put back in a facility that was already just profoundly inadequate.
Where are the other children—those who haven’t been moved back, and are in Health and Human Services (H.H.S.) custody? Do you have some sense of their status and/or well-being?
No, we don’t. My office did tour one of the local facilities that is run by a licensed group. My team told me that it was really well-run and an impressive facility, but there is limited bed space. And that is part of why the supplemental border bill we are voting on today is so important. It appropriates more money on the H.H.S. side to get some of those beds and move children out of those profoundly inadequate facilities.
There has been a debate among Democrats about increased border aid, with some members of your party saying that it will just give the Administration more power, and that any legal limits placed on the aid will be ignored. It sounds like you think the bill is necessary despite that.
I do. I don’t believe there is a single member of our caucus who has faith in this Administration, that it will do the moral and ethical thing when it comes to migrants. In anticipation of our mistrust of the Administration, the appropriators actually built into the legislation a prohibition on transfers. The money cannot be used for anything other than what it has been appropriated for. You are right: there has been a vigorous debate internally about ways to improve the bill. All of us believe there is much more work to do, including the appropriators. The question before us today is whether we can pass something that will quickly pass the Senate, because folks like me who are on the front lines know the emergency that we are facing.
In terms of building in these guardrails, is there concern that the Administration will ignore them, no matter how well the bill is written?
Oh yeah, of course. But that fear exists with or without this supplemental [bill]. If we can target this money for the needs of families and children and communities like El Paso, it is far better than the status quo. If we vote down this bill, or, if the Senate doesn’t move ours, or, if this languishes too long, I really, truly believe we will have more deaths. The status quo is unacceptable.
No community has been more targeted by Trump’s cruel border policies than El Paso. We were the testing ground for child separation. We have seen the number of individuals sent back to Mexico under the M.P.P. program [Migrant Protection Protocols, which were implemented this year, and which return some asylum seekers to Mexico] continue to grow. We had a partial border shutdown. The impact on a community like mine has been beyond significant. It has been deeply consequential on our psyche and our economy and our community. El Paso has responded beautifully, but everyone, rightfully so, is looking for Congress to do something. We need to pass this bill.
Have you felt any sense of urgency from your Republican colleagues, especially in the Texas House delegation, or the Republican governor of your state?
I have not seen a sense of urgency on the humanitarian side from my governor. I think the posturing that has taken place is more about looking tough on the border. That is disheartening. It shows either a deep lack of understanding of what is actually happening or a complete disregard for the truth. We are seeing a significant increase in the number of asylum seekers at our front door. By continuing to try to paint the border as unsafe or a place that needs soldiers or more boots on the ground, versus a humanitarian response, demonstrates to me that the governor has no idea what is really happening, or he doesn’t really care.
And the Republican congressional delegation?
I think that we have a number of Republicans who are deeply concerned about the humanitarian needs at the border. It is my hope that they will join us today in support of that supplemental.
Is this the ten-thousandth issue I have talked to someone about where you or someone says, “Well, in private, the Republicans are upset, and they tell us that Trump isn’t great, but they don’t want to say anything”?
There are definitely a number of those folks that I have spoken to. [Laughs.]
Is there some aspect of this crisis that members of Congress are hearing about that hasn’t broken through via the media?
Not that I am aware of, because, honestly, it is members of Congress who have been informed by the media or lawyers about what it actually happening. And that is part of why this bill is so important to me. On the House side, we will have the ability to go into these facilities at any given time. We don’t have to schedule a visit. We don’t have to wait twenty-four or forty-eight hours. We can just show up. As an example, when the story broke about the two hundred and fifty children at the Clint facility, I asked that my district staff go in immediately. Of course, their visit was punted to the next day, and, by the time my staff was allowed in, most of the children had been moved. It has been very challenging for us to provide oversight with this Administration. And thank goodness for journalists and for lawyers who have been able to find their way to the truth and let the world know.
What should concerned citizens be doing about this, in your view, both inside and outside of Texas?
I want the country to understand that child separation never ended. I want the American public to hang on to their outrage and their disgust, because the status quo cannot continue. And for Donald Trump, this isn’t harsh enough.
To go back to your community, how do you think all this is registering in Texas?
I don’t know how Texans in other parts of the state are feeling. But I can tell you that border residents are beyond heartbroken. It is painful for us to have this occurring in a safe and beautiful community like El Paso, where the vast majority of residents are looking for ways to share their goodwill and charity and kindness, where we have a history of honoring immigrant communities and immigrant families. There is nothing that has been more difficult in my recollection, in my lifetime, than what we are experiencing today. This is a very dark moment in American history.
Even if things are worse now, a lot of experts say that Trump would not have been able to do these things without both parties putting in place an immigration bureaucracy and structure—
Yeah, I agree.
Is that something you feel like Democrats need to face up to, from when they were in power?
I do. Something that we need to recognize as well is that not everyone who is here today was here ten years ago or twenty years ago or thirty years ago. And I also recognize that views and positions evolve over time. But it is true that Republicans and Democrats alike have long talked about creating a more secure border. Our border is secure and safe. We are just facing a challenge of an increasing number of families arriving at our front door. We can never conflate asylum seekers with [border] insecurity, because it is not the same thing. For too long, I think, members of both parties were too willing to appease voters who were uncomfortable with people coming across the southern border.
I am a person who believes in law and order, and there is nobody who more wants a safe border community than those of us who live in border communities. Obviously, this is where we are raising our children and built our lives. But what we don’t want is militarization and xenophobia.
You said the border was safe and secure. It is not secure in the sense that people can cross it. Do you mean that, even if people can cross it, safety is not a real problem?
That’s exactly right. We have to recognize the population that is arriving at our front door. And we have to treat that population differently, because there are people who are trying to come across our border who may want to do us harm, or have terrible criminal records. I want my federal law enforcement to focus on those folks. But it means differentiating between them and the asylum-seeking families who are not here to do us harm, who are not here to create unsafe communities. That is an important distinction.