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Critic of Biden border policy in line to oversee DHS budget

Progressives are wary of Cuellar, who faces a tough GOP challenge in November with border security a campaign issue

Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas is poised to become the top Democrat on the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee next year.
Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas is poised to become the top Democrat on the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee next year. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, has emerged as one of his party’s biggest critics of President Joe Biden’s handling of the southern border, which he said amounts to “just letting everybody in” during a recent interview with the Houston Chronicle.

With Cuellar in line to be the top Democrat in the next Congress on the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, which oversees the Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection budgets, some Democrats and advocacy groups are growing concerned.

“His views are not in line with a majority of Democrats on the issues of immigration and asylum, and that puts him in a very powerful position to work with Republicans in blocking proactive immigration movement,” one House Democrat, who requested anonymity to speak freely, said.

Cuellar, first elected in 2004 and representing a southern border district that includes the city of Laredo, is one of the most conservative House Democrats. One of the last remaining anti-abortion Democrats, Cuellar faced a tough primary challenge this year from progressive Jessica Cisneros, narrowly holding on by fewer than 300 votes after a June recount.

In his role on the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, Cuellar has pushed for more funding for CBP and ICE, two agencies many Democrats have no love lost for. With most Democrats focused more on alternatives to detention and boosting humanitarian aid for migrants, Cuellar has instead prioritized border security.

Progressive Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., said he hopes Cuellar’s positions evolve.

“I hope Mr. Cuellar, if he does take that position, moves a little bit on that issue,” Bowman said. “We’ve got to invest a lot more in asylum than we do CBP.”

The fiscal 2023 Homeland Security appropriations bill that the House Appropriations Committee approved in June would provide $15.7 billion for CBP, nearly $900 million over the fiscal 2022 enacted level and $338.1 million over Biden’s request.

The bill includes funding for two Cuellar priorities: 300 Border Patrol agents and 300 new Border Patrol processing coordinators, and $120.1 million for 250 customs officers, 500 technicians and 500 mission support staff, according to a fact sheet compiled by his office.

The House bill would provide $8.4 billion for ICE, $138.1 million above the fiscal 2022 level and $296.4 million above Biden’s budget request.

The full House has not taken up the fiscal 2023 DHS bill because of divisions within the Democratic caucus that could have imperiled its chances for passage.

[Border politics threaten push to boost spending on migrant aid]

On the defensive

Cuellar needs to win reelection to become the subcommittee’s top Democrat, and he is in a tough race against Republican Cassy Garcia, a former aide to Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales currently has a Lean Democrat rating on the contest.

Garcia has made border security an issue in the race, and the union representing Border Patrol agents earlier this year endorsed Garcia after backing Cuellar in the previous election, putting the Texas Democrat on the defensive.

“My accomplishments as the Vice-Chair of the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee speak for themselves and demonstrate my continued commitment to securing our southern border,” Cuellar said in an Aug. 30 statement.

Redistricting has shored up Cuellar’s position a little in a district he won by 19 points in 2020, but Garcia is considered a more formidable opponent. And Cuellar continues to fend off questions about the FBI’s January raid of his home and campaign office in Laredo in connection with an investigation into the government of Azerbajian’s U.S. activities. Cuellar’s attorneys have said he is not personally a target of the investigation.

If Cuellar hangs on in November, he’d replace current Homeland Security Appropriations Chair Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., who’s retiring.

With Republicans still expected to win control of the House in the midterm elections, Cuellar would be the subcommittee’s ranking member. But if the Democrats hold the House, Cuellar would become a powerful “cardinal” with immense sway over the CBP and ICE budgets.

Jake Hochberg, Cuellar’s chief of staff, said in a statement that Cuellar is focused on winning reelection and the committee structure for the next Congress is speculative. However, he said Cuellar will “continue to work with his Democratic colleagues of all political persuasions to come to a consensus regarding Homeland Security policy.”

“Furthermore, all advocacy groups and organizations will have a seat at the table to be heard and their views considered,” Hochberg said. “Congressman Cuellar welcomes all viewpoints as Congress crafts the Homeland Security budget and respects the opinions of all parties.”

‘Disastrous direction’

While Roybal-Allard was an “empathetic ear” to immigration advocates, Cuellar becoming the chairman would be a “disastrous direction for the subcommittee,” the Defund Hate Coalition, which consists of organizations aiming to reduce CBP and ICE funding, said in a statement.

The group expressed fear that Cuellar would be “antagonistic” to their aims.

“The Chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security should not be influenced by corporate interests but instead must understand the human impact of decisions that will be made there,” the group said. “Although Representative Cuellar represents a border district, he does not represent the needs of immigrant and border communities that are devastated by ICE and CBP enforcement.”

Cuellar could use his position to increase border protection funding and provide funding for more immigrant detention beds, the Democratic House member who spoke anonymously warned.

“Anything that involves spending money has to go through that committee, so ultimately, it’s a very powerful spot,” this lawmaker said.

Critics also point to for-profit prison companies’ support of Cuellar, whose district houses ICE detention centers managed by the two largest prison operators, Boca Raton, Fla.-based GEO Group Inc. and Nashville, Tenn.-based CoreCivic Inc.

Groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and progressive Democrats want the Biden administration to shut down private detention centers, similar to the White House’s move last year to end Justice Department contracts with for-profit firms to run federal prisons. A letter to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in March from over 100 House Democrats points to “substandard living conditions” at privately run ICE detention centers.

GEO Group is the largest single lifetime donor to Cuellar’s campaigns, according to data compiled by, and both GEO Group and CoreCivic political action committees have maxed out to Cuellar this cycle. He’s among only a handful of Democrats that one or both company PACs have donated to in the 2022 campaign, with the vast majority going to Republicans.

Cuellar defended the prison companies’ donations in comments to Newsweek during the 2020 campaign, saying the two companies “operate facilities in my congressional district, employing many of my constituents.” He said he’s long backed efforts to improve conditions for migrants at the detention centers.

‘Work him over’

Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García, D-Ill., a leading voice in his party for less restrictive immigration policies, said he and like-minded Democrats would have to work to make their voices heard with Cuellar leading the DHS subcommittee.

“While he represents a border district, he also needs to be mindful of the larger picture of migrants and how states have different policies toward them,” García said. “Obviously, with him as chair, we’ll have to work him over more and make sure he is appreciative of our views.”

However, García expressed confidence that Cuellar, whom he described as a “good listener and reasonable fellow,” would take his and others’ positions into account. But there are real differences between Cuellar’s positions and others in the caucus.

“Because of the areas his district encompasses, he’s a lot more sensitive to border security issues, funding levels, technology, a host of things, so I would hope that wouldn’t color his views as it relates to larger issues,” García said.

Others echoed García’s assessment that Cuellar would take the will of the caucus into account, including Roybal-Allard.

“I think Congressman Cuellar has a responsibility, not only to reflect the interests of his district, but he realizes as the chair of any subcommittee, he represents the entire caucus,” she said.

Caroline Coudriet and Peter Cohn contributed to this report.

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