Rep. Henry Cuellar has represented Texas’ 28th District since 2005, which stretches south from San Antonio to the US-Mexico border. But the progressive challenger who made a strong showing to unseat him this primary, immigration attorney Jessica Cisneros (who’s also his former intern) wants voters to pay attention to his record.
“It took me having to go to Washington to figure out how conservative he was,” Cisneros told BuzzFeed. “I think about that experience a lot, because I get it when we go up to people’s doors and all of a sudden we, you know, hit them with the facts and what the congressman’s been up to, [and] many, many people don’t know.”
So, what has Cuellar been up to?
For starters, he’s earned the nickname “Trump’s favorite Democrat” from progressives, voting in line with Trump about 70% of the time. In addition to censures from Planned Parenthood and praises from the NRA, Cuellar has a history of cozying up to large corporate donors. This cycle, he’s garnered financial support from the Koch brothers Super PAC — the first time the PAC has intervened in a race to support a Democrat.
Cisneros has been buoyed by Justice Democrats, the organization that recruited and endorsed Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley in the 2018 midterms. Both seats also belonged to incumbent centrist Democrats, and the wins resulted in changes to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee rules to blacklist political vendors who attempt to primary incumbents. The Super Tuesday race stayed neck-and-neck for most of the evening, but by Wednesday morning, Cuellar had edged a 3-point lead over Cisneros, earning just 2,700 more votes out of the more than 74,600 cast.
Texas’ 28th Congressional District encompasses Laredo, which is home to a handful of ICE and GEO detention and processing centers. Cuellar has worked to secure funding to expand the county-owned facilities, as well as nearly $1 billion in 2015 to stem the flow of migration from Central America — funding that did little more than accelerate corruption and further violent crime and extreme poverty in the region.
GEO Group, the nation’s second-largest immigration detention center operator, has given Cuellar over $124,000 throughout his time in office, donating more than $36,000 during the 2019-2020 cycle. GEO operates two facilities in Cuellar’s district, which is over 77% Hispanic.
“The biggest thing is that when people are transferred to Laredo, it is one step closer to deportation,” immigration researcher Bethany Carson told the Texas Observer of the isolated facility.
Perhaps the most troubling association Cuellar has maintained during his time in office is his relationship with Perceptics, a border security company that makes license plate readers. A series of emails and documents show a pattern of Cuellar pushing for such technology and contracts to be integrated. An email chain between lobbyists for the Tennessee-based government contractor excitedly noted Cuellar’s 2011 appointment to the Homeland Security sub-committee. Several of those same lobbyists have made donations to Cuellar’s campaign committee, stretching back to 2009. Contract lobbyist for Perceptics Cristina Antelo is a board member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus PAC, and has regularly hosted fundraisers for the PAC since 2010. Cuellar’s campaign also received sizable contributions from the Voter Protection Project, which received a $250,000 donation from the CHC BOLD PAC at the beginning of February.
In 2013, Cuellar’s office pushed for the State Department Inspector General to investigate Perceptics’ bid for a contract to install vehicle identification technology, after the company was passed over in favor of contractor Axiompass. In 2017, the lobbyists drafted a letter from Cuellar to Customs and Border Protection chief Kevin McAleenan to push for the license plate readers. After Perceptics contracted with US Customs and Border Patrol, the company was hacked last summer, exposing thousands of individuals’ information.
Despite her loss, Cisneros’ close margin proves there’s an appetite for her progressive platform, including comprehensive immigration reform and getting special interest money out of politics. Cisneros accepted no PAC or lobbyist money — in stark contrast with Cuellar’s time in office. Cuellar’s seemingly close relationships with border security and surveillance lobbyists have allowed for a steady stream of financial backing over the years.
“This fight was an opportunity to prove that a brown girl from the border with a whole community behind her could take on the machine and bring hope to South Texans. This is just the beginning in #TX28,” Cisneros tweeted Wednesday morning.