Henry Cuellar: Maverick Catalyst for a Serious Approach to Immigration Reform
La Frontera, by Carlos Sanchez, TruthDAO opinion columnist
He was the third member of Congress to deplane Air Force One behind President Biden after landing in El Paso, dressed casually in what may have been emblematic of his comfort in wielding power as an elected official for more than three-and-a-half decades, including 18 years as a U.S. Representative.
His name is Enrique Roberto Cuellar, but everyone knows him as Henry – perhaps the most influential and least trusted of the 13-member Democratic delegation from Texas and arguably the most conservative Democrat in Congress.
When Biden finally decided to visit the U.S.-Mexican border after two years as president, he invited three Democrats from Congress – each of them representatives of the 1,200-mile Texas-Mexico border – to accompany him on the five-hour journey aboard Air Force One.
And while Reps. Veronica Gonzalez, D-El Paso, and Vicente Gonzalez, D-Brownsville, have been outspoken about the growing numbers of migrants amassing along our southern border, many waiting to enter the United States by any means necessary to claim asylum, it is Cuellar, a native of Laredo, who could provide the president with the most insight about the immigration quandary.
If Congress ever got serious about reforming existing immigration and asylum laws, Cuellar could be a key to forging bipartisan support.
This is a Democrat who once had a private dinner with former President Trump, the same Democrat who new House Speaker Kevin McCarthy tried to induce after last year’s mid-term elections to switch parties, the same Democrat who served as Texas secretary of state to Republican former Governor Rick Perry. Ironically, his service to Perry gives Cuellar the distinction of being the last Democrat since 1994 to hold statewide office although secretary of state is an appointed position.
Cuellar is a classic Blue Dog Democrat claiming a moderate position among his party. But more progressive critics note him being the sole Democrat last session to oppose abortion rights and note his long history of working across the aisle as a basis for leveling one of the most offensive labels in Hispanic politics: vendido or sellout.
During last year’s primary, Cuellar eked out a victory by a margin of less than 300 votes against a former intern of his, Jessica Cisneros, whose progressive positions drew the endorsement of Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont; Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.; and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY.
Those seeking to unseat Cuellar last year were bolstered by an FBI raid last January of his home and office in Laredo less than two months before voting in the tightly contested primary was to have begun. Cuellar later said he was not the target of any criminal probe and later media reports have said that the raid was part of federal investigation of businesspeople with ties to the country of Azerbaijan.
But Cuellar, part of a politically connected family whose brother is the sheriff of Webb County where Laredo is located, brought in his own heavyweight endorsements, including that of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. And while his congressional district encompasses a two-and-a-half hour drive from the Texas-Mexico border to the eastern outskirts of San Antonio, his primary and general election victories, although closely watched, offer insight into the voting habits of Texas Hispanics and why the border region, a traditional Democratic stronghold, has Republicans salivating at the possibilities: because border Hispanics are more conservative than Democratic political operatives seem to give them credit for.
Cuellar understands this well. On the issue of immigration, Cuellar has taken a lead in bolstering border security resources while decrying populist solutions such as building a wall. He was the sole House Democrat to vote in favor of easing restrictions to deport unaccompanied minors. But he also called out candidate Trump who visited Laredo in 2015, saying Trump had "overgeneralized and exacerbated a rhetoric of immigrant crime that has offended many, particularly those of Mexican heritage."
While most committee assignments in the new Congress have not been announced, Cuellar has played an influential role as a member of the House Appropriations Committee and played a leadership role on two appropriations subcommittees: the Subcommittee on Homeland Security and the Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security.
Like many policymakers along the border, Cuellar has said that trade with Mexico must be part of the immigration equation; enforcement cannot be the sole focus. Laredo currently has the Number 1 inland port along the entire southern border, and that port of entry alone represents nearly $250 billion in trade annually with Mexico.
Last April, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a huge Biden critic on border security, underscored the delicate balance of trade when he deployed state police to inspect trucks coming in from Mexico in what he called an effort to stop the flow of illegal drugs. In just two weeks of inspections, which delayed border crossings, a prominent Texas economist estimated the resultant delays and food spoilage cost an estimated $4.2 billion.
Cuellar has touted the border security policy of the Obama administration, a policy that got the former president labeled “Deporter-in-chief.” But the lifelong resident of the border also has an appreciation for the U.S. Border Patrol that few Americans understand. Like the U.S. Postal Service, the Border Patrol has historically been a ticket to solid middle class careers for Hispanics along the border, particularly those who have served in the military.
Last September, Cuellar took a swipe at both the Trump and Biden administrations saying, “I don’t believe in open borders and also I don’t believe in separating kids from their mothers the way that President Trump did so we’re getting two extremes from one administration to another administration.”
He has long advocated not only support for the U.S. southern border but also for Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, pushing for Mexico to enforce its immigration laws as well. He has noted that 63% of those in this country illegally are here because they overstayed their visas, with Canada being the number one country feeding visa violators into the United States.
“I want to make sure that as we address the issue we know the facts,” Cuellar said. “People just don’t understand us at the border.”
Carlos Sanchez is director of Public Affairs for Hidalgo County, Texas. Prior to making the leap to government in 2020, he was a journalist for 37 years. He has worked as a contributor and/or staffer at The Washington Post, Texas Monthly magazine, the New Orleans Times Picayune and other top publications. Earlier in his career, Carlos oversaw newsrooms in Waco and McAllen, Texas, as executive editor. He is on Twitter @carlosasanchez