With the help of Justice Democrats, which supported Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley in their successful bids to oust longtime Democratic incumbents last year, Cisneros raised more than $100,000 in the first 48 hours of her campaign, she said. Since then, she has raised $47,000 more, with donations averaging about $23.
Jessica Cisneros on challenging an incumbent Democrat: 'There's a lot he has never had to justify'
Last month, Jessica Cisneros, a 26-year-old native of South Texas and immigration lawyer, announced her primary challenge against Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat who represents Texas’s 28th District. Just five years ago, Cisneros worked as an intern in Washington for Cuellar, whom she now refers to as “Trump’s favorite Democrat.”
Cuellar, an eight-term congressman who won in 2018 with 84% of the vote, stood with moderate Democrats and Republicans last week in approving a $4.6 billion emergency aid package for border states without the restrictions sought by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and others. Cisneros said his vote offered “a blank check to Trump and the Republicans’ anti-immigrant agenda.”
As controversies continue to surround immigrant detention centers, Cisneros has made Cuellar’s donations from companies that run the centers and private prisons a central issue of her campaign. Since he was first elected to Congress in 2004, Cuellar has received donations from the conservative-leaning Koch brothers, been given an “A” rating by the National Rifle Association and co-sponsored anti-abortion legislation, prompting criticism from some Democrats.
Cisneros was the first of two primary challengers to be endorsed by Justice Democrats so far this cycle. Jamaal Bowman, a school principal from the New York running against a 16-term incumbent, was the second.
If she wins, Cisneros would be the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. She is just one year older than the minimum age required to run, a fact she considers an asset. Like some other liberal Democrats, she supports the idea of free public college, and she is still paying off six-figure loans from law school at the University of Texas at Austin.
We spoke to Cisneros about her background and campaign to represent the 28th District, which stretches from south of San Antonio down to the border. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Q: You grew up along the border in Laredo, Texas, and are a child of Mexican immigrants. How did that shape your political views?
A: My parents came from Nuevo Laredo, just across the bridge. I can see the Mexican side of the border right now, while I’m sitting at a friend’s house.
When I was 7, I would see families crossing, and I would see that they were terrified. I didn’t know what it was, but felt like something was wrong. I felt kind of powerless — I couldn’t spot the differences between their families and ours in what they experienced.
At that point I committed that one day I was going to be an abogada [lawyer]. I felt like all my experiences were leading me to be an immigration lawyer. The culture down here is that everyone is bilingual — the default is Spanish.
My family came here because my sister had a medical issue. We were just like other Latino families I always saw. My parents sacrificed so much just for their kids to be happy here. Having that shared experience of growing up here, on two sides of the border, led me to think constantly about what immigrants experience.
Q: So you were convinced you wanted to be a lawyer, but how did you decide that you wanted to run for office?
A: Back in 2011, when I was in college at University of Texas at Austin, the debate around immigration wasn’t as heated as it is now. Under the Obama administration, we saw him as deporter in chief. He also brought back family detention. At UT, law students and professors were definitely focused on trying to end family detention.
Most of the debate as we see it now started once I was in law school. When Trump was elected, I was in my second year. I knew I wanted to do immigration law, so in the fall of 2016, I signed up for as many human rights law classes as I could. We were asking ourselves: Where are we going? What are going to be the asks for the next administration? We thought, why stop at ending family detention? Let’s push for the end of detention, period.
Then Trump gets elected and our ideas went from being on the offensive — as in, what are we going to ask for? — to being on major defense. How are we going to protect what we fought for? How will we help our clients and their rights when there are family separations and children dying in custody?
Q: How did you see the debate around immigration as a college student?
A: DACA came around 2012, and it wasn’t so much that it was all peace and tranquility in my circles. I hung out with a lot of other Latina women, many of whom were undocumented or had parents who were. We didn’t really think this was a big celebration. It was more like, awesome, of course, this is the way it should be. This is the way it should work — you are American, you just don’t have the paperwork.
Q: And what was your experience when you first started working as a lawyer?
A: I started as a lawyer doing a fellowship. The people I was representing were detained as their cases go through the immigration system. I thought: Finally, this is what I have been waiting for. I was so ready to use that experience to help people who look like me and my parents.
Then I began facing the cold reality that it doesn’t matter how great a case you present. I would have stacks and stacks of evidence as to why this person deserves asylum, because they face the real possibility of death if they go back. But the laws just aren’t there yet. You have to be pigeonholed in a certain category to say, yes, you are going to get killed, to get asylum. That’s just how nonsensical our laws are.
I realized that if the laws are the problem, then I am going to have to go to Congress to fix that.
Q: You interned with the lawmaker you are now running against, Henry Cuellar. He was one of the first members of Congress liberal Democrats identified as a target for 2020. What was the internship like?
A: When I started, I was very, very excited, because I thought it would be a great insight to the legislative process, and maybe it would be an effective way to serve my people.
Once I got there, I noticed his silence on a lot of things I care about it: women’s rights, poverty, health care. People I know with diabetes have to go to Nuevo Laredo for medications because it’s so expensive.
He knew I was from the district. Never once did he come up to me and say: “What do you think I should be doing?”
He is from here, yet he is getting money from private prisons and immigration groups. That is going to be a big part of our campaign. Because he has not had a primary since 2006, his record hasn’t been an issue. There’s a lot he has never had to justify before this.
Q: When you first announced your campaign, several people compared you to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who defeated a longtime incumbent in a Democratic primary. What did you think of that comparison?
A: People think because I am a young Latina who is trying to help the Democratic Party I am just like her. I have a lot of admiration for her, but that doesn’t mean we’re the same. I am trying to be the first Jessica Cisneros, and just do that well.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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