When U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar delivers the Spanish-language rebuttal to President Trump's State of the Union address Tuesday, she'll do so from a community health center in her hometown of El Paso, Texas.
The first-term Democrat was thrust into the spotlight last year, as her city became a testing ground for Trump administration immigration policies and the site of the deadliest attack on Latinos in modern U.S. history.
Escobar, 50, made history when she was elected in 2018 to fill the seat previously held by Beto O'Rourke. She is one of the first two Latinas to represent Texas in Congress.
Since taking office, she has served as a fierce advocate for her city along the U.S.-Mexico border and harsh critic of policies such as the Migrant Protection Protocols, which require asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico as their cases play out in U.S. immigration court.
"My district is ground zero for these atrocities," she said during a House hearing on child separation. "These policies have created the humanitarian crisis and a moral one."
Escobar has led numerous congressional delegations to the border. "It's frustrating to know that we are being painted as a dangerous place meant to be controlled, when what we see is a place of complexity and beauty," she said last January, standing with several lawmakers near a newly built section of border wall.
"Words have consequences"
Escobar faced another serious challenge in her first year in office following the Aug. 3 mass shooting that killed 22 people at an El Paso Walmart. Police say the white gunman was targeting Mexicans and drove hundreds of miles from his Dallas suburb to attack the border city.
Escobar was quick to draw a link between the massacre and President Trump's immigration rhetoric, declaring that the president should not visit while the community was mourning.
"Words have consequences," she told MSNBC. "The president has made my community and my people the enemy. He has told the country that we are people to be feared, people to be hated."
Those who have known Escobar throughout her career say they're not surprised by her outspokenness.
"She has this way of speaking that is not insulting and yet you know where she stands," said former El Paso Mayor Raymond Caballero. "She's not wishy-washy in the least."
Caballero first pushed Escobar to run for political office. She grew up in El Paso, where her family has run a dairy farm for several generations. Her father spent decades working as the county engineer.
Escobar originally wanted to pursue a career in academia and earned degrees in English literature from the University of Texas at El Paso and New York University.
She was teaching in her hometown in the early 1990s when a new immigration enforcement crackdown began and there was talk about building a wall along the border.
"I was so offended by the concept, so disturbed by what it would symbolize and represent and so afraid of what it would mean in terms of fueling xenophobia that I ended up getting involved in politics," Escobar said. "I was pulled in by my desire to stand up for my community."
She joined a local nonprofit called the Border Rights Coalition and went on to volunteer for political campaigns, including Caballero's bid for mayor. He hired her as his communications director, then urged her to run for office.
She resisted at first, convinced she was better suited to work behind the scenes. Ultimately, "he told me, 'why would you ask other people to do something you are unwilling to do?' and it really played into my Mexican Catholic guilt," Escobar recalled.
She served as an El Paso county commissioner from 2007 to 2011 and as El Paso County judge from 2011 to 2017, before running for Congress to replace O'Rourke, who had decided to run for Senate.
Though Escobar has garnered attention as a vocal critic of the Trump administration, she has not joined some fellow Democrats who are calling to abolish the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Instead, she's calling for increased oversight of border enforcement agencies and pushing to change immigration policies. She sponsored a successful House bill that would create an ombudsman for border and immigration enforcement issues within the Department of Homeland Security and has introduced legislation to defund the Migrant Protection Protocols.
"I think she takes a realistic and pragmatic view," said Eliot Shapleigh, a former state senator from El Paso who has long worked with Escobar. "There is gonna be a Homeland Security agency that relates to border enforcement issues, so she knows that. So what does she do? She says let's reform ICE."
"I try to avoid the blanket generalization or stereotypes," Escobar said, noting that many federal agents here are her neighbors, people she knows from high school or church. "But it's hard in the face of an administration that creates such cruelty."
Escobar said it was critical to give her response to Trump's speech from her hometown on the border: "This is a place that has responded in the face of hate with love, in the face of attacks against the vulnerable with hospitality."
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The results of the Iowa caucuses are still up in the air. The impeachment trial is still happening. In the middle of all of it, President Trump will give his third State of the Union address. That's happening tonight. And as custom holds, Democrats will respond with remarks of their own. This year, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer will deliver a rebuttal in English. And Veronica Escobar, a first-term congresswoman from El Paso, will give a rebuttal in Spanish. As Mallory Falk from member station KERA reports, Escobar and her city have recently been thrown in the spotlight.
MALLORY FALK, BYLINE: Almost immediately after she took office, Veronica Escobar started leading congressional delegations to the border. Last January, she stood with several lawmakers near a newly built section of border wall - tall steel slats that cut through the desert. For people who live on the border, she said...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
VERONICA ESCOBAR: It's frustrating to know that we are being painted as a dangerous place meant to be controlled when what we see is a place of complexity and beauty.
FALK: Escobar was elected to fill the seat previously held by Beto O'Rourke - one of the first two Latinas to represent Texas in Congress. But what's truly put her in the spotlight is criticism of the Trump administration's immigration policies at a time when the border and El Paso have dominated the news. Here she is speaking at a House hearing about family separation and migrant detention.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ESCOBAR: My district is ground zero for these atrocities. These policies have created the humanitarian crisis and a moral one.
FALK: Last August, a white gunman from North Texas - who said he was targeting Mexicans - killed 22 people at an El Paso Walmart. When President Trump announced plans to visit days after the shooting, Escobar told MSNBC he wasn't welcome.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ESCOBAR: The president has made my community and my people the enemy. He has told the country that we are people to be feared, people to be hated.
FALK: Those who've known Escobar throughout her career say, they're not surprised about her outspokenness.
RAYMOND CABALLERO: She has this way of speaking that is not insulting and yet you know where she stands. She is not wishy-washy in the least.
FALK: That's Raymond Caballero, a former mayor of El Paso. Escobar volunteered for his campaign back in 2001 and made such a strong impression, he hired her as his communications director. She eventually became county commissioner, then county judge - top positions in the place where her family's run a dairy farm for several generations. Escobar hasn't joined some fellow Democrats who want to abolish ICE. Instead, she's pushing for increased oversight and accountability.
ELIOT SHAPLEIGH: Well, I think she takes a realistic and pragmatic view.
FALK: Eliot Shapleigh is a former state senator from El Paso who's long worked with Escobar.
SHAPLEIGH: There is going to be a Homeland Security agency that relates to border enforcement issues. So she knows that. So what does she do? She says, let's reform ICE.
FALK: Tonight, she'll reach an even larger audience when she helps deliver the Democratic Party's response to Trump in Spanish. For NPR News, I'm Mallory Falk in El Paso. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.