Last month, La Prensa Texas had the unique opportunity to have a sit-down interview with Jessica Cisneros, an immigration attorney from Laredo that pulled together a strong grassroots campaign against current US House Representative of Texas District 28 that surprised even the most doubtful of skeptics. Our journalist Guillermo Osorio fielded the questions and here is what the aspiring Congressional candidate had to say:
GO: What do you know currently about the status regarding the backlog of cases for immigration courts caused by the previous White House administration and how are they affecting immigrants living in San Antonio?
JC: Yeah, I think the backlog has always been a problem during the last four years of the Trump administration and it’s something that is definitely becoming more urgent especially after the COVID pandemic where courts were closed for a significant amount of time. I believe here in San Antonio they are about to reopen next month or in the next couple of months. So, for an entire year people were just in limbo with extensions of court closures and it’s just something that it is a complicated thing to tackle because I think a lot of people who aren’t familiar with immigration law or practicing in immigration court think that the solution is just you know what, let’s just hire a hundred immigration judges and get this backlog out of the way but, you kind of forget that the decisions that these judges whose views are obviously affected by case law and that’s something that has been dismantled over the past four years. So, right now, just hiring immigration judges is just isn’t the solution because you’re just going to be putting people in harm’s way actually instead of providing the proper relief and the form of justice you want to see because you’re forcing them to continue with the proceedings when you know that there’s bad case law from the previous administration that was created in bad faith and was especially created to punish people in asylum cases coming to this country. There’s a lot of folks here in San Antonio, well obviously there’s not just asylum seekers, right, there’s a lot of folks that have been living here for quite a long time and some of them are actual permanent legal residents themselves that found themselves in proceedings and I can definitely say that one of the best things that this administration can do is undo first is the terrible law that came out this past administration and then continue with the proper cycle after but it cannot be done until all of this case law is fixed.
GO: And which law was that?
There were several, I think one of the big ones that was something we were excited to petition for this past week was those related specifically related to asylum cases but it was what we call a matter of AZ and matter of LEA, these were cases that came out of the court of immigration appeals but at that time Attorney General Jeff Sessions decided to certify theses cases to himself which is a power that was rarely used and was very much abused during the Trump administration. In prior administrations, it was very rare where Attorneys General would refer cases to themselves, but that was something that Jeff Sessions very much abused and started referring cases to himself. So basically what happens during the certification process is that the Attorney General, in this case Jeff Sessions just made up law himself and it was binding law to immigration courts and in these two cases specifically it made it extremely difficult for people who were being persecuted by their spouses in Central American countries to apply for asylum in the United States and it also made it difficult for people who were fleeing family based persecution from any country really, to be able to obtain relief. So, that’s why and obviously as someone that does this kind of work, there’s a huge chunk of the cases that you see right, it’s not a weird concept for example, with matter of LEA, to think that ‘oh they’re trying to hurt my loved one and because my loved one did something to cross the persecutor, now they’re trying to hurt me because I’m related to my loved one’. We know that happens right, but unfortunately Jeff Sessions pretended that wasn’t something that happened, and he decided to you know, stop granting asylum to people who were in these kinds of situations. So last week, Attorney General Merrick Garland vacated those rulings which was exciting because basically, again it provided help for all of these people who are receiving asylum based on those grounds. It’s a very nerdy, long winded response but obviously there’s still a lot of work left to do but I think it was a very big step in the right direction in what we saw last week.
GO: Are you aware of the work environments currently for the employees of the US Department of Health and Human Services at the various immigration camps set up in San Antonio? (If no, provide information)
JC: I haven’t been able to, well my practice area is in Laredo, and I haven’t been able to come up here to San Antonio, this is the first time I’ve traveled up here since I got vaccinated to talk to colleagues to see what has been going on at various places where folks are being held. Through my job we have been able to do some kind of remote work specifically with unaccompanied children and this is in another area, not San Antonio, but we know that anytime there’s a sudden ramp up in the kind of projects the administration sets up especially with ones pertaining to detention of immigrants, conditions don’t tend to be the best and that’s something that’s a given but unfortunately what we’re seeing right now is kind of a symptom I guess, of how the system is and I’m never going to tell people that there’s an easy fix to all of this because there isn’t. It’s a very complex road for a solution right, so because you’re talking about so many pull and push factors. We were talking about history earlier right, and history has a lot to teach us how we ended up here with a large influx of not just unaccompanied children but families with children as old as twelve. When we are talking about immediate fixes, yes there are things we can do but if we are trying to actually address the, I don’t want to call it a problem or an issue because I don’t see it that way, but if we are trying to address this increase in immigration then we have to be sure that people are being safe here or in their home countries. It’s going to take a multi-faceted approach to our foreign policy but also our domestic policy as well.
GO: Also, the employees they are part of that, because they are overseeing the children, I spoke with an HHS employee on the basis on anonymity who stated that they are seriously understaffed and are paying more at the camps than at the larger facilities so there isn’t really an incentive for people to get hired. The management has been piling up work on employees without adding any incentive raise for compensation either, so it’s a real circus at the workplace. Employees can’t even clock out at times when they need a break or go to the bathroom. One female employee urinated on herself because she couldn’t leave her post with the immigrant children. It’s a dismal situation especially when they are beyond capacity and now accepting 31 more children affected with COVID-19 which only adds to the issue. The limit is supposed to be 8 children per adult during the daytime however at night it more than doubles to 10 to 18 which creates a big dilemma, especially in the supervision of children and that is a huge security risk. Not only that but when they try to get promoted from within for management, and they have been soliciting some of the employees that have applied get denied because they don’t even know how to use excel and that’s it, but they everything else about the aspects of the job. So, what do you have to say about that?
JC: I think that anytime any kind of worker is faced with those circumstances it’s indicative that it’s a big issue, right? Nobody should have to be forced to wait for hours to go to the restroom and not even go. I’m the kind of person that always advocates for workers’ rights but also the fact they find themselves so overwhelmed means that the best intention isn’t being provided for the children that are there so, something strikes me right now the way that you’ve told me about the workplace, it seems that they are doing recruitment in my hometown of Laredo and again, it is indicative of a larger issue that people are coming to take these jobs that pay so much more than whatever you kind find in Laredo right, so people are being strategic about where they’re doing their recruitment and are obviously going to recruit from different places where Laredo has a 30 percent poverty rate and they’re just trying to find workers. I didn’t know the extent of how terrible the conditions are it just goes to show that this kind of work isn’t for just anybody.
GO: Do you think that Laredo has ever asked help from the WHO or any of the peace workers from UNICEF?
So right now, there’s about two or three migrant shelters depending on how many folks are at the migrant shelters. I spoke to one of the directors the yesterday and it’s more of just like a resource issue, I’m not sure if they have had any communication with the WHO or other larger entity but I know they’re doing what they can. They have the systems in place but for example, they’re running out of rapid COVID tests that they should do anytime when someone comes to the shelter to protect anyone who is at the shelter like the staff and occupants. All of the systems are there but there’s no funding or support from any of the government entities.
GO: That’s odd because at Fort Sam Houston you can get a rapid COVID test anywhere from 8 am to 12 pm everyday and it’s odd to me that the government doesn’t take advantage by giving drivers a special pass to get people tested.
JC: I know they have reached out to the city but unfortunately, apparently the tests are running out and I don’t know if this again, just kind of showing how underinvested or not supported Laredo is as a city, it’s pretty difficult to get help over there because of one, our geographic isolation, we aren’t small but also we aren’t the biggest city right. A tale as old as time in Laredo is just that we know what we need to do, but we kind of don’t have the resources to actually get it done. I hope that we are able to find you know, hopefully the city works with somebody to try to get the COVID tests. I mean it’s safer for everyone, we can get more people tested, there are folks who haven’t been vaccinated yet, it could be a good thing for our city.
GO: Have you reached out to Senator Zaffirini’s office by chance? Maybe to see if she can offer any legal recourse?
JC: I’m not the person in charge of the shelter right, I’m pretty sure the directors are on it and are reaching out to as many partners as they can.
GO: What can be done currently to improve those conditions for both the employees and detainees in your opinion? Why hasn’t this been addressed more urgently in the last year?
JC: Well, I focus specifically on representing adults in immigration court while they’re detained, I service the three detention centers that we have in Laredo. I think the best thing you can do is actually invest in other jobs in the area unfortunately a lot of people end up in even though they’re not actually happy with the kind of work that they are doing. I mentioned how high the poverty rate is, and job security is very precious in Laredo and obviously you’re going to try to find a way to provide for your family and if that means working in a detention center even though that’s not something that you are not passionate about doing, you take the job to make ends meet right? I think the best thing would probably be investing in other jobs in the area that are well paying jobs and closing the detention centers because not a lot of people are aware that there’s this out of sight, out of mind kind of thing. They’re not aware of what happens in the detention centers and what people go through and there’s reports of women that have been issued previously used underwear and they have to use that because they don’t have any other clothes that are issued to them. Then they end up getting bacterial infections, and there’s been cases where the water is so dirty it’s undrinkable, there are commissaries in the detention centers so people are allowed to work for a dollar a day and there are these water bottles because you can’t drink the water that is being offered. You have to work a day and a half to be able to afford one of these water bottles to be able to drink water. It’s usually very cold, people are freezing, people aren’t getting the medical attention they need either while they are detained, it’s just a horrific experience for anybody. Especially right now with COVID, if you even show one symptom, you’re put into solitary confinement which we all know how difficult it was during pandemic to not going outside and not interact with people, you can just imagine how terrible it would be to placed into solitary by yourself. So, for me the solution obviously long term would be to close the detention centers and make sure the workers actually have better paying jobs that they want so you can kill two birds with one stone when you’re talking about how to better the conditions for everyone at the detention centers.
GO: There are currently at least 250 Veterans who have been deported or were in deportation proceedings during 2013 – 2018 according to the Government Accountability Office, and Unified US Deported Veterans founder Cesar Lopez Nunez estimates there may have been at least 1,000 deported Veterans residing in Mexico currently. To your knowledge, what is the current situation as USCIS on Veterans receiving a pathway to repatriation?
JC: I’m aware that people are trying to get a legislative fix on this, which I think is necessary unfortunately it causes worry for a lot of folks is that they’re residents, they enlisted, they served their country honorably, and you know life happens and sometimes people then end up addicted to drugs and I don’t know if a lot people know this but if you’re caught with about 30 grams of marijuana or any harder substance that’s an automatic deportation. Even if you do have a green card that’s how a lot of people end up losing their residency in the United States and getting deported. When you hear stories about these people, these Veterans and why they ended up in this situation for a lot of folks it’s tied to their crime even though they served their time in the military and it’s a consequence that to me, it’s just unthinkable right? Whenever you hear of somebody that enlisted in the military then all of a sudden, they call the United States home, they fought for this country, and for this country to turn its back on them and their families and be like sorry, you’re going to be sent to somewhere you probably don’t even remember living there. It’s just really unfortunate and unfair instead of approaching things with a real eye on what we can do to serve, it’s not something that unless you’re a Veteran yourself or you’re an immigration practitioner it’s something that there’s not a lot of advocacy going on around this issue which I think is unfortunate and I think this probably should be a part of something to be brought up in comprehensive immigration reform within an immigration reform bill because it’s something that seems so common sense but unfortunately these are folks that fall through the cracks. Not just that, I think when you’re talking about Veterans and immigration issues, I mentioned previously before for another interview how there’s Veterans having problems trying to reunite their families in the United States and they’re not one offs, there’s a whole lot of the population that is being affected by these rules that just seems too incongruent.
GO: Did you know that’s also happening to interpreters who help DoD overseas in Afghanistan and Iraq, how they’ve been denied visas and entry to the United States even though they willing participants and translators for the DoD?
JC: Yeah, I actually worked with somebody who was able to come to the US with an S Visa, which is what it is called and there’s folks under different categories that kind of fall under similar programs, but yes, I know that especially in the last four years it’s been kind of like a promise made but that promise has gone unfulfilled. It also affects our reputation as America where we’re promising something and all of a sudden, we’re like no, just kidding we’re actually not going to do that.
GO: Yeah, I’ve seen that happen in Iraq way too often, especially to contractors. You have Bengali who work in the dining facilities, and they would get all of these promises from the military S-4 logistics guys and nothing. They were just empty words.
So far Senator Tammy Duckworth, Rep. Jesus Garcia (both from Illinois) and US House Veterans Affairs Committee Chair Rep. Raul Vargas have all introduced legislation in support of immigration policies & repatriation for Veterans, what are your thoughts on their success in Congress and why there aren’t more co-sponsors on this bill from more Representatives of Texas? (Currently, only Sheila Jackson Lee D-18, Filemon Vela D-34, Marc Veasy D-33 are the only co-sponsors on the House I-VETS bill)
JC: I think is where legislators have to team up with constituents to do more advocacy on the bill, where people actually read the text and understand what the bill is trying to do and I feel it’s very rare you’re going to come across somebody that’s like ‘no, I don’t think I’m going to support this bill’, I think it’s a popular bill, and one, I think it’s like advocacy and education around the bill so that people know about it and two, making a plan with constituents to pressure their members of Congress. I mean, that’s something you should be clearly signing on if you haven’t signed on already.
GO: I noticed even your former opponent isn’t on any of these bills, nor have any of our Bexar County elected officials…
JC: It doesn’t make any sense, this is Military City, USA and this is just a very common-sense bill and a quick legislative fix that everybody should be signing on to.
GO: You ran a progressive platform against Rep. Henry Cuellar but were up against not only special interest groups from the infamous Koch brothers through the Americans for Prosperity Super PAC (the first time the group has ever supported a Democrat) but also the fundraising support by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus as well as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. What are your thoughts about your previous campaign being subverted not only by the GOP but also top-ranking Democrats in Congress?
JC: We knew going in what kind of an uphill battle it was going to be, even people who you believe were supportive were skeptical because it is difficult for someone who has no prior political experience in terms of holding office or running for something. Coming in 26 years old, coming from a background with parents who were farm workers who doesn’t have an expansive network or a traditional network of someone experienced who is running for office, especially Congress. We knew the people were going to be skeptics and we were going to have to convince folks that we did have what it takes to be in office. We knew obviously that going up against an incumbent, it wasn’t just an incumbent it was an entrenched incumbent, someone who had been in office for 15 years. We weren’t going to count on a lot of support or continued support but luckily we trusted [our staff], I always pride myself of saying that this is a campaign that had an ear to the ground, and talking to folks, members of the community, it kind of didn’t matter what people in Washington D.C. were saying because they aren’t the ones that are going to be voting. It was going to be those people that live in the district, and we really placed our bets and really proved to people that we were right. We came up short, but for us to perform the way we did again, somebody who is a newcomer, a 26-year-old, to go up against an incumbent of 15 years who had 2 million in his war chest to start to just 51.8 percent of the vote, I’m always in awe of the power that our supporters and volunteers brought to the campaign.
GO: So, did it really sting, getting hit by people from your own party and dark money from the GOP supporting Cuellar?
JC: No, because I knew that was going to be the game, we know that people, the Democrats who supported our opponent, they saw themselves as like protecting their job, protecting their incumbent. It wasn’t a surprise; it was just something that we thankfully foreseen to happen and it’s just a matter of being strategic and planning around that. Yeah, we didn’t have the support of the Hispanic Caucus or the Speaker, we did have support from other people to rally in our corner. We had the support of one of the first people to support us in Elizabeth Warren, who was running her presidential campaign to rally on our side and supported us and also Ricky Martin too. A key part of our team too is anybody who volunteered to pick up a phone to make phone calls for our campaign or go knock on doors.
GO: You were accused by Rep Cuellar of being unfamiliar with the concerns of Texans and in favor of abortions. Cuellar hasn’t mentioned anything regarding Veteran repatriation nor the immigration issues at HHS with staff and detainees in his messaging. What would you like to comment about his claims and lack of attention to immigration or deported Veterans?
JC: I mean I guess you don’t have to go further than the bill we just discussed right, we know that if these bills were issues that he was a champion of, he would have already signed on to support this bill, he would have been one of the original sponsors.
GO: Do you find that Rep. Henry Cuellar appears quite similar to the likes of Senator Joe Manchin in that they tend to support more Republican backed agendas than that of their aligned political party? What would you suggest that the Democrat Party do to address this sort of activity enacted by these sorts of officials that often run counterintuitive to party platform ideals?
JC: We don’t want bipartisanship for bipartisanship’s sake. I understand working across the aisle to actually get something done on behalf of constituents, but when you have bills for example the PRO Act [H.R. 842], which is truly bipartisan because it had support from both Republicans and Democrats, and for him to be the only Democrat to vote against a bill like that, well that was clearly an opportunity for you to stand up for what you believe in if you value bipartisanship but you didn’t and why didn’t you, it’s because you sold your soul to corporate America through their financing of their campaign. When obviously this would be so beneficial for our entire district where you are supporting the workers or you know that unfortunately there’s very high rates of poverty where there’s very little power invested in workers. This bill would have been a game changer and he decided to not be bipartisan in this and instead that’s just telling of whose interest they’re fighting for.
GO: Do you plan on making another run again for office, and if so what office? What might you do differently to improve upon what went awry in your previous campaign?
JC: I’ve always told people that I’m not the kind of person to just run for anything for the sake of being in office, because one, it’s really hard to run a campaign and I really felt I had to be in it for the right reasons and that I was doing something alongside of other people that were just bigger than myself. I decided to run for Congress because I was asked to by my community because I felt like I could do a good job in this role because my work as an immigration attorney is heavily impacted by federal law, it’s also impacted by state law, not perhaps in the same way as in federal law. Because one of the big reasons why I ran is to try to get health care for everybody because I experienced firsthand loss when somebody doesn’t have health care and aren’t able to afford it and die as a result. I knew there are legislative fixes for that if Congress actually decides to do something about it. There are several reasons that I thought about when making the decision to run for Congress. If end up doing another run, it will be for that office the same way that I took the decision-making process seriously last time, I am doing so this time as well. I’m not the kind of person take this lightly because I want to honor the work and the trust that people placed in our campaign last time around. I want to make sure that I am the right person, that I am reflective of the district that I am running in and I’m not here to waste anybody’s time. If there’s a second run, I’m going to be very smart and strategic so that I know what I am doing, I think we proved that last time with how close we got, and our team knows what they would be doing this time around. So, I think it’s just a matter of, when the time comes to make a decision, am I still the right person and is this the best role that I can be to advocate for people in my community.
GO: We appreciate your time and professionalism in taking our questions for this interview. We’re thankful for your dedicated service to our immigrant communities, and especially in championing those during your campaign in Precinct 4!
JC: Thank you!