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‘A Strategic Mistake on the Part of My Party’: A Top Dem Speaks Out on the Border

In her day job as a leader in the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Rep. Veronica Escobar is at odds with President Joe Biden on two signature 2024 issues: She has deep reservations about the Senate border bill he backs and she has called for a cease-fire in Israel’s war in Gaza.

But in this election year, the Texas Democrat also holds one of the most coveted assignments in politics: co-chair of Biden’s reelection campaign.

I stopped by Escobar’s office on the fourth floor of Rayburn to tape this week’s episode of Playbook Deep Dive and to try to understand what it’s like for the El Paso lawmaker to navigate this unusual moment as both a high-profile opponent of key Biden policies and one of his top campaign surrogates.

We talked about her disappointment with Biden’s recent statement about shutting down the border, her concerns about his policies in the Middle East and the potential fallout for his re-election, whether she’d rather Biden run against Nikki Haley or Donald Trump, and the difficult issues that might be on the agenda at the next meeting of Biden’s eight campaign co-chairs.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s talk about your role as Biden’s reelection co-chair and also the deputy whip of the Progressive Caucus. To me, this is fascinating because there’s some huge tensions between Biden and the progressives over immigration. So let’s start with the Senate bill that the man that you’re trying to get reelected is very, very strongly backing.

I think what’s important for me in terms of the context is this is a congressional obligation — fixing our country’s broken immigration system, reforming outdated laws and policies and processes. It’s been a congressional failure for 37 years. The president out of the gate gave us a comprehensive immigration reform bill. I actually helped work on that for then-candidate Joe Biden. He created these unity task forces. Do you remember that?

Yes. Bernie and Biden. Everyone coming together. 

I was so privileged and honored to be part of the immigration unity task force.

And that immigration legislation came directly from that process. But that’s not the bill Biden is talking about these days, right?

No, it’s not. And a lot has changed since then.

What has changed?

When the president gave us that bill, House Democrats were in the majority, and we did not get that bill across the goal line. This is where a lot of my own frustration comes from. We had the power to pass that bill. We had the majority and we didn’t do it. So here we have a Democratic president that needs Congress to do its job and we failed.

What were you told at the time by Pelosi and the White House? “Wait for infrastructure, wait for the other priorities to pass?” 

Even though I helped shape that bill, I was not a part of the whip team or the team that was in charge of moving it through the House. That job was given to far more seasoned members of Congress and I absolutely deferred to them.

And I think this is so important to understand why I felt I needed to work on a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill a year later. Part of what I recognized is that our caucus is so diverse. Within our own caucus, there were things everyone found to critique and not be pleased with.

You needed a second Unity Commission.

Or group therapy, one or the other. But it was really at that point when I saw that we couldn’t move that bill, that I thought we needed a bipartisan product.

I know you’ve put out a bipartisan product — we’ll talk about that in a second — but that’s not even on the table right now. What’s on the table is an asylum reform bill, a border security bill with a number of pieces that I don’t think anyone believed Joe Biden would support a year or two ago. 

Let’s start with the politics of this bill. The conventional wisdom is Joe Biden is facing a very difficult reelection. Immigration is a top issue. And the White House political team believes that moving to the right on immigration and passing this bill will help them defeat Donald Trump. Just unpack that political conversation as someone who has a foot in the Biden campaign as a co-chair and has her own strong views on immigration.

This is the toughest domestic policy issue that we are facing today. Without a doubt, congressional inaction for decades has brought us to a moment where the country is sick and tired of inaction on this issue. At the same time, we are seeing mass displacement of people all over the globe. And Congress has used this as a political football for a long time. I can tell you even in El Paso, a community of such goodwill, such a loving community where people open up their wallets and their pantries to provide hospitality for migrants every single day, there’s exhaustion and there is this sense that the issue has gotten so bad that something has to happen.

The president, at the same time, has tried various different strategies and at every turn he gets criticized by all sides. Some of my progressive colleagues have been very critical of some of his approaches. Of course, the right has been super critical. And then at the same time, states like mine [Texas] take him to court every time he introduces a new rule or proposes a new strategy. It’s a no-win situation for the president. And unfortunately, members of Congress have gotten away with saying it’s on the president, not on us.

So, Congress has been very effective at deflecting and saying that it’s not our responsibility when it is. And I’ll be very candid, I wish the Democratic Party, the president included, had leaned in on this issue early on. It’s what I advocated for when we were in the majority. We should lean in and we should explain to the American people how difficult this is and how multifaceted the solution has to be. There’s not a quick fix. There’s not an easy band-aid. It will take years of public policy and appropriations to get to a point where things are more manageable, but nobody wanted to talk about it. And I think that was a strategic mistake on the part of my party and that includes everybody.

The political environment is rapidly shifting. And I now hear many Democrats using similar terms that Republicans have used to describe immigration about closing the border. And that includes the president.

He put out a statement the other day saying, “Send me this legislation and I will close the border on day one.” What did you think of that?

I was not happy. That’s absolutely not language or terminology that I would use. Not today, not ever. I am a huge supporter of the president’s. When he called and asked me to serve as his national co-chair, I was so honored. I feel it is such a privilege and I think he’s one of the best presidents we have ever had. And I am fully, completely, absolutely behind him and will do everything I can to make sure he gets reelected. Does that mean I agree with him on everything? I don’t. There’s no two people who agree completely with one another, even in the most harmonious relationships, marriages, friendships, etc.

So this is one of those issues where we don’t see eye-to-eye. And I have yet to see what’s in the Senate bill, but there are certain red lines for me, and if any of those issues are in there, I won’t support it.

So when you say you’d do anything to help get Biden reelected, voting for that kind of bill, it’s not on the list?

Well, it’s a little bit more practical for me, and here’s an example of the red line. If there are rapid expulsion policies in there — I live on the border, I have daily communication with Border Patrol, in fact, I’m bringing 10 colleagues to El Paso to show what works and what doesn’t. And something that has consistently not worked is rapid expulsion. It creates more inhumane conditions for migrants. It creates more death, more persecution, more sexual assault, just horrific conditions for migrants. So I don’t see rapid expulsion as a solution. And if that’s a part of the Senate negotiations, I can’t support that. And I shared that with the administration yesterday.

Who do you talk to in the administration about this? Who’s the point person? 

I frequently speak to Secretary Mayorkas, who is the most decent, incredible human being. He’s a solutions-based person, but he is deeply rooted in some values that we share. He doesn’t get enough credit for some of the really great work that he’s done that upholds our values as a nation and as a party.

From what you understand, this is not a bill you’re likely to support?

It would be very hard for me to support it. And I will tell you, this is why I have been saying for a year now, while the House Democrats are in the minority, I’ve been saying we need to focus on the only bipartisan bill that exists today, which is my bill. It gives us real strategies for addressing the border in exchange for enforcement and other things. But if we don’t compromise, this is what happens. We get a whole lot of what we don’t like and zero of what we do.

What is your view of the political bet that a lot of Democrats seem to be counting on here and especially folks in the White House?

On the political front, everything changes day-to-day, right? I have learned to not be a betting woman on politics in general. I learned that pretty profoundly during the Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump election. And the red wave that was supposed to shift the House significantly, which resulted in an incredibly narrow majority for House Republicans. So, I say don’t count on anything, don’t bet on anything.

There seems to be a bipartisan consensus on the politics of this immigration bill. You have Donald Trump whipping against it, calling up Republicans saying, “Don’t do this. I need this issue. I need chaos on the border as an issue” essentially. And you have the president and his campaign team, of which you’re a part, saying — not exactly saying — but implicit in the strategy is “we need to take this issue off the table. We need to move to the right on border security and pass this thing and it will help Biden get reelected.” Do you believe that?

What I believe is regardless of policy, what I hope the American people see is that the majority of congressional Republicans in the Senate, in the House, don’t want a solution. The majority of Republicans in the Senate, in the House, still take their marching orders from Donald Trump. And what Donald Trump has said is that he wants the economy to collapse, and he wants the border to become even more chaotic. Who could support a candidate and legislators who want to harm the country for their personal benefit and for their personal political gain?

So the way that Trump has played this, if this bill doesn’t pass …? 

It’s because of Republicans.

But you are sort of aligned with them in a sense. You’re smiling here. 

I haven’t seen the bill. I’ve not ruled out voting in favor of the bill. I have to see the bill.

It’s a bill that Biden says he will use to shut down the border on day one. That’s probably not something you’ll support.

I want to know what shut down means. What if shut down means something different than what I think it means?

What is the alternative? 

I’ve got to see the text. Honestly, I cannot opine on something when I just don’t know what’s in it.

Listen to this episode of Playbook Deep Dive on Apple, Spotify, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.

What’s the easier issue for Biden and this election: immigration or Gaza?

Immigration.

Because Gaza you think is a serious campaign concern?

It is. For me, it’s a serious concern as a legislator and it’s a serious concern for the campaign. I mean, it breaks my heart to see Muslim communities committing to defeating President Biden, which would help Donald Trump, who would institute a Muslim ban on day one.

And yet I understand their pain. I understand where they’re coming from and their feeling of helplessness and hopelessness.

But also — I called for a cease-fire 10 days after the horrific Hamas attack against innocent Israeli citizens and children. And I understand what the president is trying to do. He’s trying to navigate what is one of the most chronically challenging foreign policy issues that multiple administrations have had to deal with and trying to ensure we don’t end up in a wider war. And so he is navigating things from the perspective of the president of the United States, not as a candidate for the office. And he’s trying to juggle a lot of different competing passionate, important views.

Just to be crass about the politics for a second: You think that Muslim communities not supporting Biden over Gaza is a bigger concern, from your point of view, than some Hispanics not coming out to vote for him? 

I do. We have seen communities of color, including Latinos, move a little bit more rightward, but I will tell you, I think a lot of those issues are around economic concerns that the entire country has shared.

And I do see positive momentum for us on that front. I do think that all those votes are up for grabs. I think we can win people back. I think Latinos and African Americans are still solidly with us. I think the AAPI community is also. I think generally these communities are solidly with us, but I don’t see the same kind of direct efforts by these other communities of color that I see in the Muslim community to withhold votes. And I feel a real sense of urgency to make sure that we are as connected to them as possible.

That’s very interesting. Do you think that that challenge extends to young voters?

Yes, it does. But I’m a Democrat, so I’m an optimist and I think there’s still hope. And I also see what the president is doing diplomatically to push a peaceful solution and to uplift the obligation we have to a two-state solution. I know for the president, these communities are profoundly important — young people, the Muslim community — and so I feel optimistic that we can rebuild that bridge.

The next shoe to drop is likely to be military action in response to the attack in Jordan the other day. I’m sure you saw Secretary of State Tony Blinken say that he’s never seen the Middle East as dangerous as it is right now since 1973, and maybe before that. And we haven’t even gotten to the point where there is a widening of the war, because it sounds like Biden is going to respond to that attack.

And the thing that concerns me significantly is the inability for Congress to really rise to the moment. This should be the moment when all of those doubters of Ukraine here on Capitol Hill — this should be a wakeup call to them. For some of them, I think they’re following the far-right leaders in the party. This is a moment for them to recognize they’re not taking us down a good road by refusing to fund Ukraine. Our adversaries are watching.

What has it been like personally being a Biden 2024 campaign co-chair? This is a big prominent position. What is a co-chairs meeting like? And these are my words, but what are they like as someone who is not on board with Biden’s policy and politics on immigration?

We have not had a co-chair meeting since the president said that he would shut down the border on the day that he signed the bill. So, we will be having a co-chair meeting [next] Saturday.

What are these meetings like? Can I come with you?

They’re great. I love my co-chairs. They’re wonderful.

Alright, so what is that meeting going to be like?

You know, we talk about a lot of things.

Are Gaza and Israel on the agenda?

We’ve talked about that.

As a campaign, who would you rather face? Donald Trump or Nikki Haley?

Personally, I think it’s important that Donald Trump be on the ticket for a couple of reasons. As a member of Congress who was trapped in the gallery on Jan. 6, I think it was a real dereliction of duty on the part of senators who voted to acquit him. And they helped create this moment for the very person who was responsible for that Jan. 6 attack against our Capitol, against our constitutional republic, against our democracy. The blame really lies at the feet of those senators who failed to convict him. They have an obligation to face up to this moment and do the right thing and speak out openly against their nominee. This should be a test for them as well. But I look forward to defeating Donald Trump once again.

So, in other words, you’d rather have Trump on the ticket because you feel like that makes the election a moment of final accountability?

Yes. It’s hard to separate, in some ways, my personal feelings of outrage toward Donald Trump, toward his enablers and toward his current supporters. I want this to be a test for them as well.

What about the debate between Democrats: There’s a faction that says, “You never want there to even be a chance that Donald Trump could be president again,” and part of that means praying for him not to be the Republican nominee because that gives him a 50-50 shot of becoming president. Maybe better, according to recent polls. How do you feel about that?

And you throw in some of the spoilers. I’m personally watching all of that very closely. This is going to be a close election for sure. You look at the country and how divided we are and none of those third-party candidates have a chance of being president. They are only playing the role of spoiler.

What does the campaign do about the third-party issue here? You’ve got No Labels out there trying to recruit someone. You’ve got RFK Jr. polling in double digits. What’s your view of this?

We are going to take everything very, very seriously.

Do you think there’s any reason to talk to RFK Jr. to ask him not to run?

I wish his wife would reason with him. This is a real test for our country and that includes those people thinking of acting as spoiler.

Is there anything the campaign can do or it’s just a matter of if they’re on the ballot messaging and fighting?

I have not spoken to campaign lawyers, so that is outside of my purview.

Whose account is RFK Jr. and his wife? It sounds like it should be Jeffrey Katzenberg. It’s an L.A. issue.

Right? It’s a California issue. That’s outside of my volunteer pay grade.

The president of the United States is not a young man. And this seems to be on the minds of a lot of voters. As one of the co-chairs of this campaign, what do you say to a lot of Democrats who are like, “Is this a great idea? Maybe we should have had a primary, maybe he should have stepped aside? He seems old.”

There’s no doubt that the president is a senior citizen. But I love to tell a couple of stories so that people understand how impressive he is.

The first time that I met with him in the Oval Office, I said, “Mr. President, you probably don’t remember me, Veronica Escobar from El Paso, Texas.”

And he said, “Of course I remember you.” And then he proceeded to tell me a story about El Paso and a woman he dated when he was younger. He described the neighborhood she lived in. I knew exactly what neighborhood he was talking about. He described the area around the neighborhood, and I was blown away. His memory is impressive. I’ve traveled with him. I could not keep up. I don’t have that kind of stamina that he has.

So yes, he is a senior citizen. But we have not had, I think, a more productive administration in my lifetime. We have not seen the kind of investment in my community ever before in my lifetime. All of that is because of Joe Biden’s leadership, his incredible commitment to this country.

And you think people shouldn’t be worried about his age?

No. I mean, can anything happen to any of us at any time? Absolutely.

The chances get a little higher the older you get though.

It’s true that there’s no doubt about that, but that’s not a concern of mine.

I have one more question about tensions between your family life, your public life, and your principles. Your husband worked for Jeff Sessions essentially doing stuff on the other side of the immigration issue. Can you help us make sense of that chapter of your life?

Sure. So, my husband was nominated to be an immigration judge by President Obama. And the process took so long and dragged out so long that his appointment and hiring didn’t happen until the early months of the Trump administration under Jeff Sessions. He was offered the position under a Democratic presidential administration, and he is someone who adjudicates asylum claims. That’s his job.

So you know this asylum issue pretty well?

Yes. We don’t talk a whole lot about his work, but we do sometimes. But I will tell you early in my first campaign when I ran for Congress the first time, my Democratic opponents — the big battle in El Paso, because it’s a blue seat, it’s all the primary.

So they attacked you from the left on this?

All sides. It still will come up as a line of attack. And my view is — it was then and it is now — I am very proud of my husband. He is a wonderful human being, a good man, and for anyone who knows him, his politics are very clear. They’re very aligned with mine.

But he is a man who has to follow the law. I ran for office in order to change those laws.

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Author: POLITICO