Meet Jessica Cisneros, the 26-Year-Old Left Challenger Taking on ‘Trump’s Favorite Democrat’

In an interview, Cisneros talks about the need for Medicare for All, fighting corporate Democrats and why Texas is ready for change.

Malaika Jabali July 23, 2019

Jessica Cisneros is taking on one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress. (Photo via Jesica Cisneros for Congress / Facebook)

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.

"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."

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.

Malai­ka Jabali is a pub­lic pol­i­cy attor­ney, writer and activist. Her writ­ing on pol­i­tics, cul­ture and race has appeared in Essence, Jacobin, The Inter­cept, Glam­our and Cur­rent Affairs.
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