U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, says that Texas missed an opportunity early in the coronavirus pandemic to really build up safety and security among its population across the state.
The first-term member of Congress, who's one of the first two Latinas elected to represent Texas in the U.S. House, said there should have been more aggressive testing efforts locally with the absence of a more thorough national strategy.
Escobar sat down for a virtual interview Monday with Texas Tribune Washington bureau chief Abby Livingston to discuss Gov. Greg Abbott’s response to the pandemic, how El Paso is faring, and the pandemic's impact through various levels of government.
How has Abbott guided Texas through the pandemic?
“I don’t think we’ve had very robust testing and tracing in Texas,” Escobar said.
She added that in the absence of a national strategy, governors are left to decide what to do. In the case of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Escobar says, “His leadership has been a total failure.”
“When everything was shut down for that period in Texas, there should have been robust testing and tracing of all of our essential frontline workers, including grocery store workers, truck drivers,” Escobar said. “A proactive approach is what we need in order to build up consumer confidence, in order to build up security and safety in communities.”
How is El Paso faring in the pandemic?
With the extended travel restrictions blocking travelers from Mexico as a result of the pandemic, Escobar said the border community has been greatly affected.
“We live in a very important economic corridor,” Escobar said. “Despite the president's best efforts, it still is a relatively fluid border.”
Noting the trade and maquiladoras, or factories, that connect the neighboring countries, Escobar said there are still essential travelers who cross the border to get to work.
Escobar said President Donald Trump should have communicated with Mexico's president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, from the beginning of the pandemic to come up with uniform standards to keep communities on each side of the border safe.
“Latinos are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, so that makes us especially vulnerable,” she said.
When it comes to flattening the curve, Escobar said El Paso is not doing well. The city has already reached 120 coronavirus-related deaths and has garnered 4,553 positive cases as of Monday.
How is President Donald Trump handling the pandemic?
At a Tulsa rally on Saturday, Trump said he instructed his staff to “slow the testing down, please.” While some aides say the president was joking, Trump did not deny that he asked staff members to decelerate testing when asked Monday during an interview.
Escobar said Trump’s statement was “startling and horrifying,” and she added that there needs to be an investigation on what, if anything, Trump has done to slow down testing.
Escobar added that although she does not have any inside information, projections show it might be a year or longer for a coronavirus vaccine to come out, saying the U.S. should collaborate with other countries to come up with a “shared solution.”
What is the situation among ICE detainees amid the virus?
Escobar said many in Congress are calling on the Department of Homeland Security to “think through a comprehensive strategy” to avoid outbreaks at the facilities. She suggested that federal officials could release nonviolent offenders in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody. They could be released and stay with sponsors so they can isolate and prevent creating a “petri dish” in ICE’s facilities, which puts asylum seekers and their own employees at risk.
She also criticized the practice of DHS transferring detainees from one facility to another, saying they were essentially “fueling the spread of COVID.”
Where do you see the Congress’ response going in regard to George Floyd’s death?
“We have a brand new civil rights movement that has awakened a generation of new leaders and activists who are done with seeing so much pain and tragedy unfold right in front of them,” said Escobar, a member of the House Judiciary Committee. “We have the obligation to rise to this moment in American history.”
Adding that Congress needs to provide “reform that is long overdue,” Escobar pointed at U.S. Sen. Tim Scott’s bill, which would require police departments to better track disciplinary issues with police officers, and allow for funding for police training and deescalation programs. She also noted the House’s proposed Justice in Policing Act of 2020, which includes banning police officers from using chokeholds and no-knock warrants.
“There is so much in this historic moment in America that has been laid bare before us that our response has to be greater than just the policing bill,” Escobar said. “We’ve got to take a step back and look at the way that we plan for the future.”
Are Democrats going to make gains in Texas in November?
Escobar, whose district is historically Democratic, said that while she believes Democrats will win over more Texas districts, it will be a big challenge.
“The president has an incredible advantage because he has the biggest bully pulpit in the world,” Escobar said. “Having that, I do believe that this is going to be a critical year for our state.”
She added that Democrats have ambitious goals this year with increasing voter turnout among Latinos.
“I think Texas is purple right now, but, if we’re going to really turn Texas blue, we need to work harder than we’ve ever worked to pull in voters who have felt disenfranchised or disconnected.”
This conversation was livestreamed on Monday, June 22, here and on our social media channels.
Our conversation series is presented by AT&T, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas and TEXAS 2036 and supported by Carlos Eduardo Cardenas, Attorney & Counselor at Law. Media support is provided by PBS El Paso, El Paso Times and KTSM.
Tribune events are also supported through contributions from our founding investors and members. Though donors and corporate sponsors underwrite Texas Tribune events, they play no role in determining the content, panelists or line of questioning.