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Veronica Escobar talks Biden immigration policy, LGBTQ asylum seekers

Texas Democrat represents border city of El Paso

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U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) leads a congressional delegation to the Paso del Norte Port of Entry in El Paso, Texas, on March 27, 2021. (Photo courtesy of Congresswoman Escobar’s office)

WASHINGTON — Texas Congresswoman Veronica Escobar on Thursday said LGBTQ asylum seekers are among those who should be able to pursue their cases outside of detention.

“We need to use alternatives to detention far more robustly and we need to stop growing detention space,” Escobar told the Washington Blade during a telephone interview. “We need to stop growing ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) personnel. We need to put all of that on pause and put resources and energy into alternatives to detention and legal pathways and reenvisioning our refugee and asylum system.”

Escobar represents Texas’ 16th Congressional District that includes El Paso, which is across the Rio Grande from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.

El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, México, on July 15, 2019. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The Texas Democrat said she supports the closure of private ICE detention centers that include the Otero County Processing Center in Chaparral, N.M., from which Johana “Joa” Medina León, a transgender woman with HIV from El Salvador, was released days before she died at an El Paso hospital on June 1, 2019.

“I’ve sounded the alarm and written letters,” Escobar told the Blade, noting she has expressed concern about the treatment of LGBTQ detainees in ICE custody. “I am calling for shutting down private facilities like Otero, but to be honest our government-run facilities are not a whole lot better. They are better in some respects, but they’re not in other respects.”

Escobar said she would like the U.S. to create “a system where vulnerable populations are not in this kind of custody at all.”

“They are in our custody through what is very similar to a criminal justice process. That is a fundamental problem,” she told the Blade. “I think we can try to spend time and energy reforming the way vulnerable populations are dealt with in custody or my preference is to advocate so that they are not in criminal-like custody at all.”

“There has to be a hybrid approach, a new way to approach populations that should be treated with a humanitarian component instead of a criminal component or viewed through a humanitarian lens instead of through a criminal lens,” added Escobar. “I want our law enforcement to focus on criminal activity and bad actors, but someone vulnerable seeking asylum should not be treated in the same away as a drug trafficker, part of a sophisticated criminal organization that poses a major threat to our homeland. There’s no way that we should be treating these two populations the same way, but that’s what’s been happening ever since the Clinton era and so it’s going to take a lot of unwinding of that and I want to get those ideas into the public dialogue. I want to push a complete revamping of the system and a reenvisioning of how we address vulnerable populations who arrive at our front door.”

Escobar said she does not support the abolition of ICE, noting it “performs important functions.”

“I am not a believer of abolishing police,” she said. “They serve a very important critical function, but I am a fan of and what I am pushing for is taking certain populations out of their custody and out of their purview.”

Escobar said she wants to “see people who are actual criminals and who do pose a threat to our communities deported” and ICE “performs that function.”

“The problem is we’ve criminalized everybody arriving at our front door,” she told the Blade. “That lens of criminality began with the Clinton administration and it’s been expanded year after year after year and so it’s going to take a lot of work to unwind it, but I’m committed to that.”

Johana “Joa” Medina León, a transgender woman with HIV from El Salvador, died on June 1, 2019, at a hospital in El Paso, Texas, three days after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement released her from their custody. (Photo courtesy of Patricia Medina de Barrientos)

Escobar spoke with the Blade less than two months after the Biden administration began to allow into the U.S. asylum seekers who the previous White House forced to pursue their cases in Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols program.

Tens of thousands of unaccompanied children have entered the U.S. since President Biden took office. Title 42, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rule that closed the Southern border to most asylum seekers and migrants because of the coronavirus pandemic, remains in place.

“We are still as a government using Title 42 to expel families,” Escobar told the Blade. “And because the expulsions are completely dependent upon Mexico’s collaboration, whenever Mexico makes the determination that they can’t take more families, families are being flown across the state or sometimes across the country, to be expelled in other Mexican countries.”

Escobar cited reports from lawyers and immigrant advocacy groups that Title 42 expulsions are “being handled in a really terrible away, that in fact agents are not informing families of what’s happening to them, and it’s led to just really traumatic experiences for vulnerable populations.”

“We continue to see policies that were initiated by the Trump administration and they are heartbreaking situations for everybody involved, but especially for the migrants,” she said.

Escobar noted the number of unaccompanied children in U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody have “drastically reduced,” but the number of them who are in the care of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services “have grown.”

“HHS is doing a remarkable job given the situation to get children as quickly as they can out of their custody and into the arms of their family members,” she said. “They have had very little time to ramp up. They have had a staff shortage, a facility shortage, a tragic lack of preparation that should have been initiated by the Trump administration, so they inherited little to nothing, so they’ve been doing the best they can.”

“I am so glad though that kids are being taken out of CBP custody,” added Escobar. “Kids and vulnerable populations shouldn’t be in CBP custody at all.”

Addressing root migration causes will ‘be tough’

Biden has charged Vice President Harris with the task of working with countries in Central America’s Northern Triangle — El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — to address some of the root causes of migration that include violence, poverty and climate change.

“We can’t address root causes without providing people with more legal pathways,” Escobar told the Blade. “Part of what fuels migrants making the treacherous journey and what forces them to go to banks to take out loans to pay human traffickers is the lack of access to a legal pathway.”

She further acknowledged there is “not one policy approach that will be the cure all.”

“We do have to look at this very clear-eyed and understand that some of the very governments that (Harris)’s going to have to work with are complicit in what’s been happening and have allowed criminal organizations to operate with impunity,” said Escobar. “Some have had family members who have participated as well, and then there will need to be a multifaceted approach on that front, as well, so there will have to be a carrot and a stick approach.”

Escobar told the Blade there should be a “robust collaboration and support that should flow to” non-government organizations “that we trust and that will be transparent with us and what will work closely with us.” Escobar added sanctions that include travel ban and freezing assets could also be used to hold individuals accountable for human rights violations in the region.

“The criminal organizations that have thrived, especially over the last four years, and have indeed gotten more sophisticated over the last four years, have operated with impunity in these governments and the United States has to work with these governments,” she said. “We have to be good neighbors, strong neighbors, but we have to be neighbors that also create accountability and create an environment where there are consequences for being complicit with bad actors or criminal organizations.”

“It’s going to be tough,” added Escobar. “Do I think it’s doable? 100 percent. Will it happen overnight? Absolutely not, but it’s long overdue.”

A group of migrants who were part of a caravan that left San Pedro Sula, Honduras, on Jan. 14, 2019. (Photo used with permission)

Escobar not invited to participate in GOP trip to El Paso

Escobar on March 27 led a group of eight House members — seven Democrats and one Republican — to El Paso.

The lawmakers met with immigration activists and representatives of local NGOs. The delegation also visited the Paso del Norte Port of Entry; CBP’s El Paso Central Processing Center; Casa Franklin, an HHS facility for unaccompanied children, and Annunciation House, a shelter for migrants.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is among those who has sharply criticized Biden for beginning the process to reverse his predecessor’s hardline immigration policies.

McCarthy and 12 other House Republicans on March 15 visited El Paso. McCarthy did not invite Escobar to participate; even though she reached out to him once she learned about the trip and offered to help set up meetings with lawyers, activists, business owners and others.

“As you prepare to come into my district, I would like to remind you that you are visiting a community that has always welcomed the stranger and has provided good will and hospitality to the most vulnerable among us,” wrote Escobar in a letter she sent to McCarthy on March 11. “Over the last four years, as the former President used increasingly racist and xenophobic language that dehumanized immigrants, we learned the painful lesson that those words have consequences.”

Escobar said “a target was painted on our backs as Donald Trump and many of our own colleagues in Congress chose to fan the flames of anti-immigrant fervor and incite hatred towards our safe and secure border.” She further noted in a letter “a domestic terrorist” who killed 23 people at an El Paso Walmart on Aug. 3, 2019, “confessed that he drove over 10 hours to slaughter Mexicans and immigrants in my community.”

“The words you and your delegation of members will use to describe the situation, immigrants and my community have tremendous power,” wrote Escobar. “I ask that you never lose sight of that because my district and I will ultimately pay the price.”

Escobar on Thursday noted McCarthy and the House Republicans who he brought to El Paso only met with law enforcement officials.

“It’s a real failure to look at the whole picture,” she said.

Escobar further criticized McCarthy and the group of 18 U.S. senators who “parachuted into” South Texas late last month.

U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) led the delegation that visited the CBP facility in the Rio Grande Valley in which thousands of unaccompanied children had been housed. A press release that Cruz’s office issued noted the Texas Department of Public Safety gave the senators “a boat tour” of the Rio Grande.

“They’ve been in Congress for a long time,” said Escobar. “Their idea of a solution is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. That’s everybody’s definition of insanity.”

“I am going to bring forward a new way of looking at all of this and my hope is that those legislators with an open mind and want to explore new ideas will listen,” she added.

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California Politics

Kick Big Tobacco OUT of California Political Campaigns launches

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Los Angeles Blade graphic

LOS ANGELES — The OUT Against Big Tobacco coalition supported by Equality California Institute launched a pledge last week urging California legislators and candidates to voluntarily refuse campaign contributions from the tobacco industry.

A total of sixteen legislators and candidates have taken the pledge thus far, with more expected to sign on as the 2022 campaign season gets underway.

The pledge was launched in conjunction with the American Cancer Society’s Great American Smokeout, a national day in recognition of tobacco users who are looking to quit tobacco for good. LGBTQ+ people are more than TWICE as likely to smoke as our non-LGBTQ+ peers, and nearly 30,000 LGBTQ+ people across the country die every year of tobacco-related causes.

Initial signers of OUT Against Big Tobacco’s pledge not to take tobacco industry campaign contributions include:

  • Senator Lena Gonzalez (D-Long Beach)
  • Senator Dave Min (D-Irvine)
  • Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco)
  • Assemblymember Sabrina Cervantes (D-Corona) 
  • Assemblymember Tasha Boerner Horvath (D-Encinitas)
  • Assemblymember Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Laguna Beach)
  • Annie Cho, candidate for Assembly District 38
  • Supervisor Matt Haney, candidate for Assembly District 17
  • Daniel Hertzberg, candidate for Senate District 18
  • Mayor Christy Holstege, candidate for Assembly District 42
  • Bilal Mahmood, candidate for Assembly District 17
  • Mayor Lily Mei, candidate for Senate District 10
  • Caroline Menjivar, candidate for Senate District 18 
  • Andrea Rosenthal, candidate for Assembly District 36
  • Rick Chavez Zbur, candidate for Assembly District 50

“For decades, Big Tobacco has used their profits to place themselves as friends of our community. This year we are kicking them OUT; out of our Pride, out of our organizations, and out of our politics,” said Equality California Program Manager, Dr. Shannon Kozlovich. “We are calling all 2022 California State legislative candidates to stand with us and pledge to run tobacco free campaigns.

“The tobacco industry is killing our children, killing people of color, killing people that have underlying health conditions. We have to take a stand by not accepting tobacco contributions!” said Senator Lena Gonzalez.

In California’s 2020 Senate and Assembly election cycle, tobacco companies spent $6 million on campaign contributions, while spending millions more lobbying against legislation to prohibit the sale of flavored tobacco products — products disproportionately targeted towards LGBTQ+ people, people of color and our young people. 

“The tobacco industry serves no purpose other than to make people sick. Tobacco money is not essential for people to win” states Senator Scott Wiener. 

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California Politics

California voters in a new poll say society will completely break down

QUESTION: Agree or disagree: I am worried that a complete breakdown in American society could happen in my lifetime

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Graphic courtesy of Probolsky Research

NEWPORT BEACH – A new poll released last Thursday by Probolsky Research found that a near majority of California voters think that a complete breakdown in American society could happen in the next couple of decades or so where no one shows up to work, armed mobs roam the streets, and the government cannot continue to operate.

QUESTION: Agree or disagree: I am worried that a complete breakdown in American society could happen in my lifetime where no one shows up to work, armed mobs roam the streets, and the government cannot continue to operate.

The results are even more dramatic among Republicans, 69% of whom say they are worried, and those fifty and older who say American society is on the brink. Black voters too.

Full majorities in Los Angeles County, the Central Valley and Northern California also believe Californians are doomed, as do a majority of those who prefer to speak Spanish.

The multi-mode poll was conducted by telephone and online among 900 California voters from November 12 – 18, 2021. A survey of this size yields a margin of error of +/-3.3% and a 95% confidence level. This survey question was not sponsored by a third party, the results are being released for public interest.

Probolsky Research which conducted the poll is a non-partisan Latina- and woman-owned research firm with corporate, election, government, and non-profit clients.

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California Politics

Assembly Speaker strips Evan Low of committee chair- no reason stated

Speaker Anthony Rendon under fire from LGBTQ, diversity groups for sidelining one of California’s top gay legislators

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Assemblymember Evan Low (Screenshot via KGO-TV 7 ABC News Bay Area)

SACRAMENTO – The Speaker of the California Assembly Anthony Rendon (D-Los Angeles)  abruptly stripped Assemblymember Evan Low (D-Campbell) of both of his positions as chairman and member of the Assembly’s Business and Professions Committee Wednesday without a stated reason.

In a letter to Sue Parker, the Chief Clerk of the Assembly, Rendon named Assemblymember Marc Berman (D-Palo Alto) as Low’s replacement without explanation. Low, who has served as chair of the committee for the past five legislative sessions, offered no direct comment instead stating in a release via his office; “It has been an honor to serve as chair of the Assembly’s Business and Professions Committee, where my colleagues and I crafted legislation to help small businesses, combat the opioid crisis, implement a system to regulate legal cannabis, and work with Governor Newsom to protect patients and health professionals during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Low serves as Chair of the California Legislative LGBTQ Caucus and Vice Chair of the California API Legislative Caucus, his removal brought immediate condemnation from groups aligned with those marginalised communities.

We are deeply disappointed to see Assemblymember Low removed as Chair of the Assembly Business and Professions Committee without any explanation. At a time when the API community faces a surge in hate, violence and discrimination, and state legislatures across the country relentlessly attack the LGBTQ+ community, Assemblymember Low has provided critical representation for our communities in Sacramento,” Equality California said in a statement. “He has chaired the B&P Committee for the last five years with policy-driven and solution-oriented leadership. Removing Assemblymember Low as chair is an unfortunate example of people of color — especially API people — being sidelined from leadership roles despite demonstrated success and a commitment to strengthening and diversifying the Legislature.”

The Washington D.C. based non-profit OCA-Asian Pacific American Advocates, a 48 year-old group that has chapters in all 50 states, dedicated to advancing the social, political, and economic well-being of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, tweeted their displeasure:

Assembly sources told the Blade over the past two days that Rendon’s actions appear to be politically driven retaliation stemming from several factions who had approached Low to campaign for the Speaker’s gavel this past summer, unhappy with Rendon’s handling of the legislative calendar as well as his handling of certain matters on the Democratic agenda.

One source pointed out that “stripping him [Low] of his chair was ridiculous and a petty move that smacked of revenge on the Speaker’s part given that he [Low] has held a personal fundraiser for Rendon and raised $120 thousand for the Speaker.”

A legislative staffer speaking to the Blade on background Friday said that the optics of the Speaker’s action was terrible. “You remove the gay lawmaker who heads the LGBT caucus and vice-chairs the Asian-PI caucus without reason? Look its clearly revenge- but Evan told those people he wasn’t going to do an end run on the Speaker and he didn’t.”

“Speaker Rendon has the right to replace any committee chair, but he also has the responsibility to explain why. To remove Evan Low – the only out LGBTQ AAPI committee chair in the Assembly – from his position without explanation is problematic, especially with no other LGBTQ people serving as chairs. At a time when the LGBTQ community and the AAPI community face increasing harm, we need more bold leadership like Evan Low’s, not less.”

Annise Parker, LGBTQ Victory Institute President & CEO

Movement is afoot inside Assembly circles as disbelief is turning to anger. Another source speaking to the Blade on background said that the Speaker’s action looks like it will backfire. “I’ve heard that some are saying they will go on the record in the next week- and some are really pissed off. He’s [Rendon] annoyed the Black caucus, now the Asian caucus- the people thinking about to go on the record, that momentum is building.”

The Speaker is not commenting nor making public statements as of Friday. One source told the Blade that a prominent non-profit leader had texted Rendon expressing grave concerns over what appeared to be a capricious move in removing Low and received no answer other than “Message received.”

One of oldest LGBTQ non-profit political groups, The Bay Area Municipal Elections Committee (BAYMEC) a four-county LGBTQ political action committee (PAC) which has been advocating for the civil rights of LGBTQ people since 1984 in the central coast counties of San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, and Monterey, took to Twitter expressing its outrage.

The Bay Area Reporter noted that the Sacramento Bee first reported about Low being stripped of his chairmanship. His being removed means he no longer chairs any committees, as per Assembly rules its members are only given one chairmanship per legislative session. Low remains a member of the communications and conveyance; elections; governmental organization; and higher education committees.

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