Jessica Cisneros on Challenging an Incumbent Democrat: ‘There’s a Lot He Has Never Had to Justify’

How did you see the debate around immigration as a college student?

DACA came around 2012, and it wasn’t so much that it was all peace and tranquillity 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.

And what was your experience when you first started working as a lawyer?

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.

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?

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?”

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