This piece is part of The Lily’s Right & Center project. Read the rest of the series here.
Photos by Adria Malcolm for The Lily.
This land is sacred, says Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, looking out the window of a minivan at the vast desert that stretches across the U.S.-Mexico border. Tumbleweeds blow over the road; scattered clouds of opaque dust hang thick in the air. She has lived here, under the jagged shadow of the red Organ Mountains, almost her entire life.
The 34-year-old congresswoman from New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District, Torres Small knows this place better than most. She was 9 years old when she first climbed “the Needle” — the highest point in the Organs — scrambling to hoist herself over the rocks as her dad identified plants and insects. She brought her friends to the same mountain range for her 12th birthday, showing them how to ford a river and spelunk a cave. Years later, it was where her husband proposed.
“All these very intimate moments are connected to the land,” she says. Torres Small has amber eyes and curly black hair, glossy from a fresh coat of serum — traits her dad says she inherited from her Native American great-grandmother. “You feel that spirit here.”
Since she was elected in November, Torres Small has driven these roads with over a dozen different members of Congress. They come down, smartphone cameras at the ready, to tour her district: the epicenter of the fiercest political debate in the country, straddling 180 miles of the most remote stretches of the southern border. They want to see the wall, the detention centers. They ask about Jakelin Caal Maquin and Felipe Gómez Alonzo, the two migrant children who died, at ages 7 and 8, while in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection in December, after walking hundreds of miles through the desert.
Jakelin came into the U.S. through Torres Small’s district; Felipe died there.
It hasn’t been easy for Torres Small, a moderate Democrat, to talk about immigration in a way that appeals to both sides of her solidly purple district: to the immigration advocates who accuse Border Patrol of actively contributing to the deaths of Jakelin and Felipe, and to the agents who say they did everything they could to save them. On Capitol Hill, it can be even harder to have nuanced conversations about the border. Torres Small is one of only a handful of members who champion centrist immigration policies: more Border Patrol agents, but with a clearer asylum process. Walls in some places, but not all.
“The whole abolish ICE tagline … I don’t know when Democrats became a party of disorder,” Torres Small says. “If you don’t like the laws, let’s work to change them. But not enforcing them? That doesn’t make sense.”
In Congress, Torres Small has earned an important platform from which to direct discussion on the border. She is the only member from a border region to serve on the House Homeland Security Committee, and is the chair of one of its six subcommittees: oversight, management and accountability. When she questioned Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen in March, at a hearing to address the Trump administration’s immigration policies, she was commended for her uniquely nonpartisan approach.
As President Trump doubles down on border security as his signature political issue, Republicans are moving further right, and Democrats further left. Each pole is missing something important, Torres Small says. She is too humble to admit she could be the one to chart the middle course.
On a sunny day in late February, Torres Small has come home to lead her fourth congressional delegation at the border. It’s a two-and-a-half-hour drive to El Paso, which butts up against Torres Small’s district, where she’ll meet Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Tex.), the newly elected member from El Paso, and Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the chair of the Homeland Security Committee.
To pass the time, Torres Small is learning how to talk like a millennial.
“Stop being so extra, Brian,” Torres Small says to her 28-year-old deputy chief of staff, Brian Sowyrda, with an exaggerated eye-roll. “How was that?”
“Better than ‘totes,’” Sowyrda says.
“I don’t say totes!”
Sowyrda raises his eyebrows.
“Okay, okay,” Torres Small says, biting into a Nature Valley bar. “I don’t say totes in public.”
One of six millennial congresswomen, Torres Small arrived in Washington alongside a group of young members who are very good at acting — and performing — their age: snapping selfies on national TV, appearing with the cast of “Hamilton,” harnessing the subtle shade of the shrug emoji. They’ve made politics young and hip and cool, amassing formidable national followings in the process.
Torres Small has never been very good at being cool. In high school, when her classmates sneaked off to Mexico to party, she stayed at home, reading the Economist or making corn tortillas with her favorite New Mexican maize. She rarely used social media.
“She’s always going to miss these flows in language that everyone picks up on,” says Elisa Cundiff, Torres Small’s longtime best friend. “She isn’t going to get your movie reference … unless it’s Harry Potter.” (To fall asleep, Torres Small sometimes still listens to Harry Potter audiobooks.)
When she comes home, Torres Small tells me, constituents often ask why she’s not more prominent in the news — why she has 516 Instagram followers, to her colleagues’ tens of thousands: You’re also a young, charismatic freshman woman in Congress, they’ll say. Why aren’t you out there with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?
“They want to see me being a part of what’s going on in Washington. They want to be able to cheer me on.” Torres Small gets quiet, and glances toward the mountains, hazy in the evening dust.
“But I’d much rather be out here.”
Many of Torres Small’s childhood friends have left southern New Mexico. The region is poor; there aren’t many well-paying jobs. Her father, a school bus driver, encouraged her to leave, too. And, for a few years, she did: first to Swaziland for a high school fellowship program; then to Georgetown for college. She graduated in three years and came right back, eventually buying the house she grew up in. But few of her friends came back with her. “It became one of my most common discussions,” she said: “‘Why is everyone abandoning home?’”
For 36 of the past 38 years, New Mexico’s 2nd District has been represented by Republicans — all older, white and male — many of whom found their fortunes in the oil fields on the eastern side of the state. As far as Torres Small could tell, they hadn’t done much to help. “There was this feeling of untapped potential,” she said. “This feeling that there is so much here to love, but it’s still a place where people are growing up in poverty, where they have trouble realizing their dreams.” It was that love of home, she says, that compelled her to run.
To win, Torres Small had to convince voters she wasn’t a “radical Washington Democrat.” One of her most popular ads signaled her staunch support for the Second Amendment: She steps out into the desert, her shotgun nestled under the crook of her arm, scouts for a target and shoots down a bird. The 2018 election was so close that several outlets initially declared the race for her opponent, Republican Yvette Herrell. On election night, Herrell delivered a victory speech. Then one polling location found an additional 8,000 absentee ballots, and Torres Small won.
Herrell has already announced plans to challenge Small in 2020. To win again, Torres Small knows she’ll have to bring a strong centrist voting record to the race: In February, she was one of only seven democrats to oppose a bill mandating enhanced background checks for gun owners. In a closed-door meeting with House Democrats a few days later, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) allegedly signaled that she would help liberal activists unseat her moderate colleagues if they didn’t vote with the party, according to several people who were in the room. Torres Small stood up in response, urging Ocasio-Cortez to consider the demands of representing a moderate district. (Ocasio-Cortez later denied that she had ever directly threatened her colleagues.)
Even the mildest progressive statement, for Torres Small, could be turned into a candidacy-crippling sound bite. “Xochi never wants to pull people apart because of things she says or things that can be misinterpreted,” said Torres Small’s mother, Cynta Torres. Every time Torres Small speaks, she has to make sure she “reflects the complexity,” she told me, not just of her district, but of the most polarizing issue in America.
It’s 8:30 at night, and the conference room at the El Paso Airport Courtyard Marriott is lit up under harsh fluorescents. Wearing what her staffers call her “New Mexican Power Suit” — a blazer, blue jeans and square-toed cowboy boots with pink and orange stitching up the sides — Torres Small takes her seat at the head of the table, next to Escobar and Thompson. Tomorrow, the three members will meet with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and Border Patrol. Tonight, they’re meeting the immigration advocates.
“They died because they were forced to go into more remote parts of the desert,” says Dylan Corbett, director of the Hope Border Institute. He pulls out two 4x6 photographs — one of Jakelin, one of Felipe — and flashes them around the room. “This is deadly. These policies are deadly. We have to change the conversation away from enforcement altogether.”
As they go around the room, each of the 12 advocates, affiliated with various immigration nonprofit groups around the area, offers a similar perspective: Enforcement doesn’t work. ICE and Border Patrol agents abuse children and lie about it. The government should cut off all their funding.
“For the record, this is the first meeting [of my trip to the border],” Thompson says. “I could have done a lot, but I need this as my introduction to El Paso and the issue — because I know what I’ll get tomorrow.” Thompson laughs, eliciting knowing chuckles from Escobar and the advocates.
Torres Small does not join in.
It can be frustrating, how quickly the left jumps to demonizing border patrol, Torres Small says. Of course, there are agents who abuse their power — who issue hateful threats or sexually abuse the migrants they detain. But mostly, she sees kindness: agents buying Happy Meals for migrant kids with their own money or complaining about detention center facilities to people higher up the chain.
“People, rightfully so, defend the humanity of migrants crossing the border without documentation. We should take the same umbrage when people dehumanize agents,” she says. “We’re all just people caught up in this broken system.”
Torres Small says she wants more people to come into the country legally, and she supports issuing more work visas and simplifying the asylum process. But she also wants to secure the border. The best way to do that, she says, is not by building a continuous wall, but by hiring more Border Patrol agents and making sure they have all the resources they need. Her first bill, introduced in early March with Rep. Will Hurd (R-Tex.), who also represents a border region, asks Congress to find new ways of attracting agents to rural posts, and keeping them happy once they get there.
When talking to Torres Small about border security, there is one particular phrase that comes up a lot: “We need a clear and moral immigration system.” (In a 30-minute conversation, she says it three times.) The tagline, taken straight from her campaign website, is hard to argue with. It’s also extremely vague, somehow appealing to many on both sides of an issue where the sides agree on almost nothing. There aren’t many of those types of phrases. So Torres Small says it again, and again, and again.
The morning after Jakelin died, Torres Small drove two hours from Las Cruces to Lordsburg, where Jakelin had been taken for medical attention, and another 90 minutes to Antelope Wells, where she had entered into the United States from Mexico.
Antelope Wells is the most remote port of entry on the southern border, with dozens of miles of empty desert on either side. The closest town is Hachita, 45 miles away, with a population of 49. Lordsburg, home to just under 2,500 people, has the nearest hospital.
“I wanted to drive the path,” Torres Small told me, to experience how long Jakelin had to travel, feverish and vomiting, after walking over 2,000 miles through Mexico. Because Torres Small had not yet been sworn into Congress, she wasn’t able to meet with any of the border agents.
“I had this feeling of powerlessness,” she said. “Of, ‘How can I serve my home if I don’t have all the information I need?’”
So she just drove, jiggling over a cattle guard every couple of miles, passing only a handful of cars that weren’t white pickup trucks marked Customs and Border Protection. When she arrived, the gate was closed, barbed wire strung high over the top. The ground surrounding the facility was blanketed with spiky yellow straw, a few cactuses dotted here and there. Her phone, out of range for over an hour, had picked up Mexican cell service.
When Jakelin died, many on the left immediately blamed Border Patrol, accusing the agency of mistreatment or neglect. Democrats have called for an independent investigation. Torres Small has stood with them, pressing Nielsen for answers when she questioned her in March.
But Torres Small also understands that the nature of the land makes this complicated. She’s driven out to Antelope Wells twice since Jakelin died. On her last trip, she discovered that the port only has one bus to transport migrants to hospitals and intake centers. Jakelin arrived at the port with 162 people, too many for one bus. And so she had to wait — not only the hour and a half it took to drive to Lordsburg, but the extra three hours it took for the first bus to go and come back. In the meantime, Border Patrol agents tried to take her pulse with an oximeter, they told Torres Small. But they didn’t have one small enough to fit a child’s finger.
“They feel incredibly defensive because they feel under attack,” Torres Small says. “But with the vast majority of agents I’ve spoken to … when they see these kids, they see their children.”
Tim Balderston has been a customs officer at Antelope Wells for 18 years. He is one of the only people who lives at the port of entry full-time, in a little red house with a bunch of stray dogs and often no running water. “Now we’ve had CNN come, and a whole lot of others,” he says. “But nobody cared until that little girl died.”
The night before she sets out with Thompson and Escobar, Torres Small rides along Interstate 10, an elevated highway that snakes between two cities on opposite sides of the border: Juarez, Mexico, and El Paso. For at least a few moments, she says, you can see the border wall from the road.
As the glittering lights of Juarez come into sharper focus, she reviews the itinerary for the next day’s trip. Every time, it’s the same drill: a visit to the wall in El Paso, a drive out to rural ports of entry in Columbus or Antelope Wells. “I could close my eyes and do the tour myself,” says Sowyrda, who usually tags along with his boss.
Torres Small is happy that so many of her colleagues want to come to her district. “We want people who talk about the border all the time to experience it,” she says, “to know what it is to live here.” But sometimes she feels like the trips just serve to further bifurcate the border conversation. So far, only Democrats have participated in her delegations. For this particular trip, she’d worked hard to recruit two Republicans. They had both agreed to come but had backed out at the last minute.
She plans to keep inviting them.
As the car swings around a bend, Torres Small points toward a cluster of lights below the highway.
“You should be able to see the border, somewhere around there,” she says.
The wall in El Paso is a series of steel beams, five inches apart. In the daytime, it’s an imposing structure, three times her height, forever dividing the two sides.
But tonight, in the dark, she can’t quite make it out.