Henry Cuellar
Rep. Henry Cuellar told NOTUS he is getting more and more support for his border stance within the Democratic caucus.
Eric Gay/AP

Democrats Have a New Border Whisperer. He’s Been Here All Along.

Henry Cuellar has the ear of the Democratic caucus after two decades of talking about border security.

After 20 years in Congress, Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar is finally having his moment. Well, kind of.

As the number of migrants crossing the southern border hit record levels late last year and the border became a top issue in voter polls, it seemed that more and more Democratic lawmakers were paying attention. Then, when Tom Suozzi won a New York special election last month, a flood of news stories posited that his harsher rhetoric on border security helped him win over moderates to take back a seat from the GOP.

Some asked if this was a new way forward for Democrats. But it wasn’t new to Cuellar. For decades, the Texas Democrat has taken a tougher approach to border security than many of his Democratic colleagues. Over all those years, he’s held onto his seat — even if his legislative pushes on the border have been largely fruitless. He’s been trying to get fellow Democrats to address the border “head-on” for years, and they finally appear to be listening: He is co-leading a new working group on how they should discuss the issue.

Asked if he’d say “I told you so” to his colleagues, he replied, not “out loud.”

Cuellar has managed to keep his seat even as Republicans make inroads with Latino voters in South Texas. His success isn’t solely due to his border stances, but if Democrats want to hold on to swing districts like his, they might want to take a look at Cuellar.

Cuellar said he does well with moderates and Republicans in his district partly because he works hard to support the border and address immigrant rights as separate matters.

“I think if we would have taken a position like this: reasonable border security and still be respectful of migrant rights, I think polls would have shown that we’re doing better, and one of the best polls is what Tom Suozzi in the special election did,” Cuellar said in an interview. “I’m sure there’s other factors, but you have to be able to talk about border security.”

Cuellar has noticed the change in the party in real time. While he says no one has ever been disrespectful about his comparatively moderate views, he’s getting more support than he used to. Though he wouldn’t name names, he said some colleagues who used to quietly express support for his views are no longer so quiet.

“They were afraid to say something because we were more in the minority in the Democratic caucus, but they would tell me, and I said, ‘Why are we whispering when we talk about this?’” he said with a laugh. “But over the last year, I’ve been approached by some Democrats on the floor, and people that I never expected to say, ‘Hey, we got to do something about this border.’”

Other legislators told NOTUS that Cuellar has been consistent over the years in his stances on border security.

“I think what’s happening now is, given the heightened interest in coming up with a solution, he will be listened to more, because he lives it every day,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson, who used to serve on the Homeland Security Committee with Cuellar. “It’s the fact that even in a tough district he’s able to survive, and people now see him as part of the real solution to the border.”


Cuellar is soft-spoken and affable, and it’s helped him take tough votes without the backlash that might face another member of the party; last year, he was the only Democrat to vote against a law that would have protected the right to abortion in the wake of the Dobbs decision.

Being able to walk the line between supporting enforcement at the border and supporting migrants has made him an almost-impossible-to-beat candidate in South Texas, where voters are often won over by economic opportunity and pro-business stances, according to a Texas Democratic consultant.

Sometimes people misunderstand why border security is such an important issue in adjacent communities, said the consultant, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about Cuellar. It’s not necessarily because people are afraid of or angry at migrants. It’s often an economic position. U.S. Customs and Border Protection is one of the biggest employers in many border towns.

“Everyone has a cousin or brother-in-law who works for Border Patrol,” they said.

Joe Biden Henry Cuellar Border AP-23008851234116
Cuellar joined President Joe Biden on a recent visit to the U.S.-Mexico border. Andrew Harnik/AP

South Texas, which is predominantly Latino, was launched to national prominence after the 2020 election, in which Donald Trump performed better than expected and Republicans won some swing districts.

Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project, noted that most Latino voters in South Texas are also part of other demographic groups that tend to vote Republican, such as rural Americans and people without college degrees. So, it’s not necessarily surprising that they vote differently than Latinos in other parts of the country.

“That is a group that the Republican Party is moving much more toward, as the Democrats are having trouble maintaining their ties in those groups,” said Henson, whose organization is affiliated with the University of Texas and conducts polls and research on voters in the state. “That may have very little to do with what we think of as the border than it is just the demographics of that region.”

Mike Carrera, a South Texas political consultant, agreed. “We haven’t changed. The parties have changed.”

Cuellar has also benefited from his deep roots in his district, where his family has become a political force — so much so that he’s been nicknamed the “King of Laredo.” (His brother is a sheriff in Webb County, and his sister, Rosie Cuellar, is running for a state legislature seat.)

He supported the oil and gas industry in Laredo, worked to facilitate trade between Mexico and the U.S., and he is anti-abortion in most circumstances. He’s brought government projects to the region and pushed for more funding for CBP. Plus, he’s one of the only Democrats who’s been endorsed by the conservative National Border Patrol Council.

“He’s able to work both sides of the fence,” Webb County Democratic Chair Sylvia Bruni said. “Right now, I think that’s important.”

Cuellar even won the respect of Republicans in the district, even if some wish he’d go further on border security.

“He has done his part, even though his party, the Democrats, have not been supportive of him,” said Webb County Republican Party Chair Luis De La Garza. “Even though I think he can still do more, the messaging is enough to satisfy the local people that he’s trying his best.”

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Cuellar’s biggest political problem is usually not Republicans but progressives. In 2022, Cuellar nearly lost his primary to a more liberal candidate, Jessica Cisneros, who did well in the parts of his district closer to San Antonio. He beat her by only a few hundred votes.

After the last election, Cuellar has had to learn to cater more to the left in addition to the right.

“Getting challenged by Jessica, man, you just see him adapt,” the Texas Democratic consultant said. “So he’s in San Antonio at the labor breakfasts. They’re lining up to take photos with him.”


Cuellar’s stances on the border may have helped him keep his seat. But in terms of actual legislation, he, like many others, hasn’t been able to get much done on the issue.

Congress has fumbled on immigration over and over again, recently in a very public, messy and embarrassing fashion. Ultimately, voters could hold Cuellar responsible for the failures of the wider body.

“His only weakness, I would say, would be the longer he’s there, the longer he becomes part of the problem,” Carrera said.

Cuellar said he’s optimistic that Congress can finally act on the border, given the broad public interest. In the meantime, he said he focuses on smaller wins, like haggling for funding on the Appropriations Committee.

“We’ll keep pushing, and hopefully we’ll get it done. If it has to be incremental, it will be incremental,” he said.

Casey Murray is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.