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Meet the 26-Year-Old Immigration Lawyer Challenging “Trump’s Favorite Democrat” in Texas Primary

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A wave of young progressives are campaigning in races across the U.S., following in the footsteps of Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who unseated a 10-term incumbent Democrat in New York City two years ago. A key candidate to watch is 26-year-old Jessica Cisneros, who is running in a South Texas Democratic primary to replace Rep. Henry Cuellar, one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress. The 64-year-old centrist is backed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Cisneros has branded him “Trump’s favorite Democrat” because he voted with Donald Trump nearly 70% of the time. Much of the outside support pouring into the contentious race has been for Cuellar, who received at least $40,000 from the conservative Koch brothers’ political action committee and has major support from pharmaceutical companies. In contrast, Cisneros supports Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and “creating a humane border and immigration policy.” She has also been endorsed by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. We speak with Jessica Cisneros, an immigration attorney who is running for Congress along the border in South Texas. We also invited Cuellar to join us, but he declined.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Ahead of Super Tuesday, we turn now to look at the wave of young progressives who want to follow in the footsteps of Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic Socialist who unseated a 10-term incumbent Democrat in New York City two years ago, becoming the youngest woman ever to serve in Congress. One of the key races that’s taking place on Super Tuesday, that is not being paid attention to as all the focus is on the presidential primary, is 26-year-old Jessica Cisneros. She’s running in South Texas to challenge Congressmember Henry Cuellar, one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress. The 64-year-old centrist is backed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Cisneros has branded him “Trump’s favorite Democrat” because he voted with President Trump nearly 70% of the time. In return, Cuellar has run attack ads like this one.

CUELLAR AD: Two candidates for Congress. One stands with families; one supports allowing minors to have an abortion without parents’ knowledge. One who is raising money for our community and spent his life here; one who gets her money from outsiders.

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, much of the outsider support pouring into the contentious race in South Texas has been for Cuellar. He received at least $40,000 to defend his seat from the conservative Koch brothers’ political action committee and has major support from pharmaceutical companies. In contrast, Cisneros is an immigration attorney who supports Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and “creating a humane border and immigration policy.” She has been endorsed by presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. We invited Congressmember Cuellar to join us; he declined.

For more, we are joined by Jessica Cisneros. She’s joining us by Democracy Now! video stream from the campaign trail.

We welcome you to Democracy Now! Actually, Jessica Cisneros, you are a former intern for Congressmember Cisneros [sic], who you are challenging?

JESSICA CISNEROS: Yeah, back in 2014. And first of all, thank you so much for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Rather, former intern of Cuellar?

JESSICA CISNEROS: But yes, I interned for him back in 2014. I was an undergrad at the time. And I went to Washington. I was super excited to intern for my member of Congress. But I was, I guess, shocked by how conservative he was. And it took me having to go to Washington to figure out his very egregious track record. So that’s something that I think about a lot now as I’m hitting the doors, because not a lot of people before this campaign knew what Cuellar was up to and how he wasn’t really representing us in Congress.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you’re on the campaign trail now. Tell us where you are and tell us where — you know, we did invite Congressmember Cuellar to be on the broadcast. But can you tell us what your main points of contention are with him and why you want to serve your district in Congress?

JESSICA CISNEROS: Right. So, right now we’re in Mission, Texas. It’s the part of the most southern tip of our district. Our district is pretty big. It’s almost the same size as the state of New Jersey. So, it goes all the way up to my hometown of Laredo, Texas, and then up to San Antonio, which takes us about six hours just to drive through it.

I think one of the biggest distinctions between me and Cuellar is who we’re serving. And you can tell who we’re serving because of how we finance our campaigns. As was mentioned, I am not taking a single cent of corporate PAC money. I do not think that corporate money has a place or a role in electoral politics, and it shouldn’t. So we’ve been able to amass more than $1.5 million with just an average contribution of $32, which is incredible. And here you have somebody who’s taking money from the Koch brothers, or the Koch family. They’re taking money from other outside groups, taking money from the NRA, you know, the private prison industry, which is one of the huge financial backers of Cuellar. And that’s why we believe that there are so many issues, whether it be healthcare, whether it be immigration, whether it be education or infrastructure down here, that are going unaddressed, because while he’s trying to cater to outside corporate interests, we’re out here trying to make sure that our voices are being heard.

AMY GOODMAN: If you can talk about the main issues that Congressmember Cuellar is attacking you on. I mean, your language against him is strong. You’re saying he’s “Trump’s favorite Democrat.” What does it mean to say he has sided with the president 70% of the time? I mean, this is a very serious issue, as you’re along the southern border. Even in the last few days, President Trump, when being asked if he’s going to close the southern border entirely because of coronavirus, he said these are the issues that he’s looking at right now.

JESSICA CISNEROS: Exactly. And I haven’t heard anything from the congressman, you know, trying to make sure that we’re not caught in the middle of this, because, yes, we are right on the U.S.-Mexico border. And I think that, for example, some of the votes that he’s taken are about immigration — right? — that he sided with President Trump. He’s voted to fund the wall twice, once in 2018, the most recent in 2019. There’s already areas in our district where the wall is being built. And it’s upsetting for us to see. First of all, this is an area that has a huge immigrant population. My parents are from Mexico. Cuellar’s parents and his family have Mexican roots, as well. To see him kind of turn his back on our community, and then do it in a very expensive way — the wall is costing about tens of millions of dollars per mile. And then you turn around and see our district, which has a 24% poverty rate — our home town has a 30% poverty rate. All that money could actually be used to invest in our communities. But that’s not what he’s been fighting for. He’s basically been throwing our community under the bus. And there’s so much potential in this area. The two South Texan values are familia and hard work. All we ask for is the opportunity and the investment, and we rise up to the challenge. But, unfortunately, Cuellar doesn’t seem to think that way.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you tell us what’s happening on the border? Just the headlines that we had at the top of the show, so many of these headlines relate directly to your neck of the woods — right? — to southern Texas and to the whole border area. Asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border were left confused and frustrated after a federal appeals court Friday ruled that Trump’s so-called Remain in Mexico policy was invalid, but, just hours later, stayed its own decision to allow the Trump administration to continue it. And then they ruled that the appointment of Ken Cuccinelli as immigration czar — this was another federal judge — was completely illegal, and so whatever policies he put into place should not be in effect.

JESSICA CISNEROS: Exactly. So, I’ve been doing immigrants’ rights work since 2012, the most recent of which has been representing folks in immigration court under the Trump administration. And I can tell you immigration law is such a roller coaster right now. And when you have — when you’re talking about families being caught in the middle of this, it’s unacceptable, right? Like, we were just — like you mentioned, just a few days ago, like, this decision was passed, everyone was really excited, then, a few hours later, it’s like, “No, you know, we were just kidding.” You know, these are people’s lives on the line. It’s their livelihoods. My parents were beneficiaries of immigration reform themselves. I know what the American dream means to families, because that’s how my family was able to have the life that we have now. And we want that for our many neighbors, who unfortunately right now have mixed-status families.

One of the things that we’re trying to focus on with this campaign is paint an accurate — or, paint an accurate picture of what life on the border is like. I think it’s very harmful to keep perpetuating the stereotype that this is a very lawless area of the country, because it really isn’t. And for us, it’s like, instead of spending money on us, trying to increase the overmilitarization or trying to increase border security, what we’re asking for here is to invest that money in our communities. And again, like, there’s areas here called colonias where a lot of families live, where they don’t even have basic infrastructure like paved roads or running water or streetlights, right? And we want for the government to invest in us in a different way, instead of trying to police us.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, you talked about your opponent, Congressmember Cuellar, being “Trump’s favorite Democrat.” But his reputation goes way back. Is it true that he endorsed George W. Bush for president over Al Gore? He’s a Democratic congressmember.

JESSICA CISNEROS: Yes, he did. If you google image his search — or, search on Google Images for his picture, you’ll see a picture of George W. Bush basically coddling his face at the State of the Union one year. He also used to be Rick Perry’s secretary of state here in Texas. And as recently as the last election cycle, he has fundraised and endorsed tea party Republicans in the state. So we know — again, this is a district that went to Hillary Clinton by 20 points in the last presidential election. This is a district where Beto O’Rourke wiped the floor with Ted Cruz in the Senate race. We actually believe in strong democratic values. But for more than a decade, Henry Cuellar has been the only option on the ballot. So there’s a lot of momentum and a lot of excitement right now, because for the first time in over a decade we have another choice.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re sorry that Congressmember Cuellar wasn’t able to join us today, but, Jessica Cisneros, thank you so much for joining us, 26-year-old immigration attorney running for Congress along the border in South Texas in a district that Hillary Clinton won by 20 points. Jessica Cisneros has been endorsed by Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. Tomorrow night, Super Tuesday night, we’ll be on the air from 7:00 Eastern to midnight in a joint broadcast with The Intercept following all of the primaries throughout the state, throughout the United States. We hope you’ll join us then.

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