Jessica Cisneros believes South Texas is ready for change. The 26-year-old human rights and immigration attorney would be the youngest woman ever elected to Congress if she wins in 2020, but she’s seen enough of politics in the 28th Congressional district to know there’s much to improve.
A native of Laredo, Texas, Cisneros anticipates that voters will agree with her when she faces off against incumbent Rep. Henry Cuellar — who she refers to as “Trump’s favorite Democrat” — in the Democratic primary next March. While Cuellar voted with Trump and the GOP 67 percent of the time in the 115th Congress, Cisneros — who has been backed by the Justice Democrats — is running on a bold platform of Medicare for All, free college tuition and a Green New Deal. She has already been compared to another young Latina who took on a powerful Democratic incumbent by running to his left: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
In These Times spoke with Cisneros, a former intern of Rep. Cuellar, about her reasons for running, how the influence of oil and private prison money has helped maintain the status quo, and the potential for progressive politics in south Texas.
What motivated you to run against Henry Cuellar in the primary?
It was a lot of things. People have been waiting for somebody to actually champion the true issues that they’re interested in: Medicare for All, having a livable wage, and, especially in an area here where poverty is just so rampant along the border, free colleges and universities.
What stood out the most when I was interning with Rep. Cuellar was that, in addition to seeing him very silent on all these issues that affect south Texans, he knew that I was from the district and he never once asked me what I thought the district needed. If I’m there five days a week and he never really had a conversation like that, then how is he treating the people that are in the district and don’t have that access to him?
From the very beginning of our campaign, we started going out into the community. The first thing people expressed was that they were shocked that somebody running for Congress was asking them what they think the problems and solutions are. For the past 14 years, it hasn’t been like that.
Also, in my experience as an immigration attorney, I saw firsthand the policies coming from Washington. You could put your best effort into a case and the judge would still tell you, “I want to help your client, but I just can’t because the laws aren’t there.”
So if the laws aren’t there, then I’m going to go to Congress and change them.
Texas is often depicted as conservative oil country. What indications have you gotten from people in South Texas that they are ready for this change?
I think that depiction is just a myth being perpetuated by people like Cuellar who benefit from it. People here in South Texas haven’t had an option to vote for somebody else other than Cuellar. He was elected when I was 11 years old, back in 2004. Cuellar hasn’t been primaried since 2006. This area of Texas is very blue. Hillary Clinton wiped the floor with Trump here. Beto O’Rourke won against Ted Cruz with a very significant margin.
We have somebody that calls himself a Democrat, but he’s voting with Trump nearly 70 percent of the time. It’s unacceptable to have someone like that represent us. And not only is he turning his back on our values, but he’s actually fundraising for Republicans. He’s taking money from GEO Group and other private prisons, the Koch brothers, and the NRA. People here know that, and they’re very excited that they have somebody that’s actually going to champion their values.
One of the arguments Cuellar has made is that oil production has actually been helpful, and funded public education for the district. How do you counter arguments that say, for instance, a policy like the Green New Deal, which would effectively eliminate the fossil fuel industry, would lead to adverse economic effects for everyday Americans in the 28th district?
All of that is stemming from the fact that Cuellar is taking money from these oil corporations. That’s why he has to defend them. So he’s trying to figure out ways of tying those things to the community so he can represent the interests of Exxon Mobil and Chevron. When he takes money from these corporations, they’re going to expect a return on their investment. That’s why it was so important for us from the very beginning of our campaign to not take any money from corporate PACs, because we don’t want to be sellouts.
We don’t want to be tied to the interests of corporations like he is. I want my commitment to be to the people here in South Texas.
You mentioned Cuellar’s support from GEO Group, which invests in private prisons. Do you think that these types of private prisons should exist in the United States?
Of course not. I can tell you firsthand the abuses that I’ve seen in detention centers. I am an immigration attorney, and I focus specifically on helping detained immigrants. During my pro bono projects in law school, there was one semester where we focused on trying to bring to light their abuses. We’re talking about women being issued previously used underwear and getting sick from that, we’re talking about people having to walk through wastewater, because pipes burst and the private prison wasn’t doing anything about that. We’re talking about sexual harassment and sexual abuse.
We cannot have institutions like these in our country. We can’t condone their human rights abuses. It’s just unacceptable. We have a person like Cuellar who is also GEO Group’s favorite Congressman, because he took $123,000 from GEO Group itself throughout his time in Congress. We can’t trust people like that to be leading the way on immigration.
It’s extremely alarming, and extremely unfortunate, that he’s the one that’s been taking all this money, because we’re situated on the border, and people are going to be looking to us to be able to provide solutions, because we see the problems firsthand here. For him to be taking this money, any of his votes or proposals will be to benefit GEO Group and CoreCivic [which owns and manages private prisons and detention centers].
Some Democrats running for president have embraced the language of Medicare for All but are actually arguing for a more watered down plan, like a public option. Do you think a public option is enough right now?
Medicare for All is definitely one of the policy proposals that we’re running on. It’s desperately needed here on the border, because Texas has the highest rate of uninsured people in the United States.
I believe that healthcare should be a human right, and I have personal experience with this. I lost one of my aunts because she was uninsured, and she had stomach cancer, and she had no way to get treatment. As soon as we started talking to constituents about Medicare for All, and I told them my story, I found that they all know somebody that went through the same thing.
On the second day that we launched our campaign, we went into a community and one woman told me that she needed a mammogram. It was, like, $70. She couldn’t afford it, and so she had to choose between fixing the air conditioning at her home or getting the mammogram done. Here in south Texas, it gets really, really hot around this time of year. We’re talking about 110 degrees during the day, and for her to have to make that choice, it’s ridiculous to say that we cannot afford universal healthcare here.
What do you think about the fact that some members of the DCCC are criticizing campaigns like yours that are challenging longtime centrist Democrats?
For us to be able to run these campaigns is a feature of our democracy. Especially in this race, where we have somebody that’s fundraising for Republicans, somebody that is taking money from corporations and groups that usually fund Republicans, we have to be able to primary these people.
Just because you’re a Democrat doesn’t mean you’re actually upholding Democratic values. And for the DCCC to discourage primaries, that’s a disservice to not only Democrats here in South Texas, but Democrats everywhere. Because if we aren’t able to do that, then Henry Cuellar can take people in South Texas for granted. That’s been the number one complaint about him along the campaign trail. People feel ignored. And that’s not right.
Many nonprofits have seen a big dip in support in the first part of 2021, and here at In These Times, donation income has fallen by more than 20% compared to last year. For a lean publication like ours, a drop in support like that is a big deal.
After everything that happened in 2020, we don't blame anyone for wanting to take a break from the news. But the underlying causes of the overlapping crises that occurred last year remain, and we are not out of the woods yet. The good news is that progressive media is now more influential and important than ever—but we have a very small window to make change.
At a moment when so much is at stake, having access to independent, informed political journalism is critical. To help get In These Times back on track, we’ve set a goal to bring in 500 new donors by July 31. Will you be one of them?