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#84: How is Climate Change (Already) Affecting Immigration to the USA?

Published on
June 14, 2022
Show notes

We’re back!

In Episode 84, Quinn & Brian ask: Is the USA responsible for climate refugees (and then turning them away)?

Our guest is: Jessica Cisneros, a 26-year-old immigration and human rights attorney and proud Mexican-American woman running for Congress in Texas’ 28th district to fight for working families. Early voting starts Feb. 18th in this district, so get on it Texan Shit Givers!

Jessica’s opponent and the district’s incumbent is Henry Cuellar, “an anti-choice, anti-labor, pro-NRA Democrat who voted with Donald Trump and the Republicans almost 70% of the time last Congress,” according to Jessica’s campaign website. Rick Perry also appointed him to Texas Secretary of State, so that’s a big red flag. On top of all that, Cuellar is one of the top congressional recipients from the oil and gas industry and — surprise, surprise — he has voted for rolling back environmental regulations. Funny how that works.

But here’s the thing: those choices don’t just affect voters in Texas’ 28th district. They affect generations of people in Texas, as well as people from other areas of the world who are already experiencing devastating effects from the climate crisis. But doing the work now to support and vote for people like Jessica will improve the lives of people around the world, for generations.

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Important, Not Important is produced by Crate Media


Quinn: Welcome to Important Not Important. My name is Quinn Emmett.

Brian:  I'm Brian Colbert Kennedy.

Quinn: This is the podcast where we try to bend the motherfucking ARCA history towards a more livable planet for you, for me, and everyone else.

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Quinn: All right. Today as always, we're going to dive into a specific question affecting everyone on the planet right now.

Brian:  If it can kill us or make the future a hell of a lot cooler for everyone, we're in.

Quinn: That's right. Our guests are scientists, doctors, engineers, politicians, astronauts, candidates for office, even a Reverend. We work together towards action steps our listeners can take with their voice, their vote, and their dollar.

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Quinn: That hasn't changed.

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Quinn: That's right. This week's episode is our first one back. We are digging into immigration because it turns out that many of the immigrants coming to America lately have tried to dig into the dirt at home, but the soil is increasingly parched, Brian.

Brian:  Interesting. Our guest, Jessica Cisneros. She's from South Texas and nobody knows these immigrant stories better than she does. She's just out there trying to change lives.

Quinn: Yeah, very excited to talk to this young woman. So let's go do it.

Brian:  Bye.

Quinn: Our guest today is Jessica Cisneros and together we're going to ask how is climate change already affecting immigration to America? Jessica, welcome.

Jessica Cisnero...: Hi. Thank you all so much for having me.

Quinn: Absolutely. Jessica, real quick tell us who you are and what you do.

Jessica Cisnero...: Yeah, so my name is Jessica Cisneros. I am an immigration human rights attorney, but I currently stopped taking cases because I am running for Congress. So I'm running to represent the 28th district of Texas down here in South Texas. It's a lot of ground to cover. It runs from San Antonio down to Laredo, Texas which is my hometown on the Rio Grande River and then down to the Rio Grande Valley admission. So we've launched back in June and we are now a couple of weeks away from election day. Election day is March 3rd here in Texas.

Quinn: Just so everyone's clear, when does early voting begin for your district?

Jessica Cisnero...: It starts in February 18th.

Quinn: Awesome. Okay. Well I think this episode is either going to yeah, it's going to drop before that for sure. So get on it people, if you can do it and remind everyone how voter registration works down there if you could.

Jessica Cisnero...: Yeah. So in order to vote for this election, the registration date already passed. So if you want to vote in the election, you have to register 30 days before the election. So the deadline for this was February 3rd, so it was on Monday and we were crazy out there trying to make sure we were registering as many people as possible so they wouldn't miss the deadline.

Quinn: Awesome. Well listen folks, you might be registered and not know it, but check and find out and then go do it. So we can help Jessica change the world here. Jessica, I know you're tight on time today which is great. It'd be really weird if you were running for such an important office and you're like, yeah no, I got plenty of time. Just a quick reminder to everyone. Our goal is to provide some quick context for the question at hand and then we're going to dig into some action oriented questions that get to the heart of why we should give a shit about it and what everyone out there can do about it. Jessica, we do like to start with one important question to kind of set the tone for our conversation today. Instead of saying, Jessica tell us your whole life story as amazing as I'm sure that is, we'd like to ask Jessica, why are you vital to the survival of the species?

Jessica Cisnero...: Wow. Well, I mean well especially in the context of this race, right? Yes, it's a primary. I'm running in a democratic primary, but there could not be a starker contrast between me and my opponent. So my opponent is Henry Cuellar and we're talking about environmental issues, the fact that we're with the climate crisis. He's really on the wrong side of those issues. He's one of the top congressional recipients from the oil and gas industry. That's one of the reasons why unfortunately he decides to vote to roll back environmental regulations including the Clean Water Act and allowing fracking to continue and just hurting our environment in general. All of those issues are really personal. I mean to everybody, but we also have our own stories down here in South Texas. So even a few months ago we had a water boil notice.

Jessica Cisnero...: So we literally could not drink our water for two weeks because it wasn't safe for us to drink it and you're talking about Laredo, which is more than a quarter of a million people. It's not a small town. The fact that we didn't have access to clean water right in this day and age. When you tell people like, well it's because we don't have the right infrastructure for this. We're not taking care of our Rio Grande River. A lot of it has to do with the leadership that we have. People get it right? For me running and making sure that we have champions out there that are actually going to stand up to the fossil fuel lobby is important because we all know what's at stake and not just for my generation, but the generation that's going to come right after.

Quinn: For sure. Assuming there will be more.

Jessica Cisnero...: Exactly.

Quinn: It would be great if we could make it so that would happen.

Brian:  Jesus.

Quinn: Well, that's awesome. As far as I understand again, so everyone gets it. This is a primary you're running in, but it's hugely important because your opponent, the incumbent is a Democrat it sounds insane, has voted with Trump 70% of the time. Is that correct?

Jessica Cisnero...: That's right. In the last Congress, he voted with Trump 70% of the time. He's known to fundraise and endorse tea party Republicans and competitive congressional races in the state. He used to be Rick Perry's appointee to the Texas secretary of state position.

Quinn: That's a red flag all day.

Jessica Cisnero...: Exactly. If you Google the guy, my opponent is Henry Cuellar. If you check out Google images, you'll see a picture of George W. Bush cradling his face at the state of the union.

Brian:  Oh my.

Jessica Cisnero...: So yeah, y'all might want to check them out.

Quinn: We will definitely put that picture in the show notes so that people can print it out and put it on a dartboard. All right. Again, I know you're tight on time here. I feel like I could talk to you all day maybe after you win, we'll come back and have a longer conversation. I mean obviously it's tough to focus on one thing at a time because the world is trying to tear itself apart, but immigration is such a big thing in America and around the world right now and it's only going to get bigger. I know it's really specific down there obviously and for you. So just some quick context for folks real quick. Just reading from The Guardian recently. There was a ruling, it said it is unlawful for governments to return people to countries where their lives might be threatened by the climate crisis, which was a new ruling that the Human Rights Committee, the UN found.

Quinn: It says the judgment, which is the first of its kind represents a legal tipping point of sorts and a moment that opens the doorway to future protection claims for people whose lives and wellbeing have been threatened due to global heating. It's obviously more complicated than that, and we'll link to the article in the show notes, but basically world governments including us, despite what they tried to do, we're still one of those. While they're not bound to that ruling, they do seem to be now on notice that they could be in deep shit when it comes to human rights violations if they don't get working on climate change and they try to return people to their home countries for those reasons. So there's more to it, but speaking specifically about your area and I believe your parents came from Mexico, is that correct?

Jessica Cisnero...: Yes.

Quinn: Okay. So the Center for American Progress says, "Persistent drought, fluctuating temperatures, and unpredictable rainfall have reduced crop yields throughout the Northern triangle." For everyone who's not aware of that, that's a region that comprises El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala. Challenging livelihoods. So many people down there are sustenance farmers and access to food in agriculturally dependent communities. Obviously, the media is not telling the full story of why people want to come here so badly and I wonder if you can talk a little bit about what you've seen in your job and why you're running and the reality on the ground quite literally for so many of these folks.

Jessica Cisnero...: Yeah, it seems like the environment and immigration are very interrelated and I think you see that especially here on the border and all these issues are just especially under the Trump administration, I feel like immigration and environmental issues seem to be on the attack at the front lines every single week. Like there's always a new rollback. There's always a change of law. In the work that I've been doing, so I've been doing immigrants rights work since 2012, in the last couple of years has been specifically helping people that are facing the removal proceedings while they're detained in the detention centers. It's been amazing to see the large group of people that come here. Well, they'll tell you economic reasons, right? There's like, "Well, I had to provide for my family. I did what I had to do to be able to make sure that they had what they needed."

Jessica Cisnero...: Then you start diving into it a little bit and be like, "Okay, so what were you working in? Like what were you doing?" A lot of these people worked in the fields because it's a very big agricultural community down there. They started talking about the effects of climate change. They don't label it like that necessarily, but they'll start talking about the symptoms. They'll start talking about the effects that what once used to be fruitful land wasn't any more. That's why they couldn't subsist anymore. They couldn't live off of the land anymore and they had to find a way to survive. So a lot of them decided to come to the United States to be able to provide for their families. As a daughter of Mexican immigrants, I understand that. My parents came here because my sister actually needed an urgent medical procedure that no doctor in Mexico wanted to perform because it was very high risk.

Jessica Cisnero...: Obviously my parents made that decision because they wanted to make sure that their daughter was okay. Even though this was a medical issue, I can still see it in other families that had to come here because they wanted to make sure their children were okay too. Right? So for a lot of folks unfortunately because the asylum laws are so strict, they aren't able to qualify for asylum because being a climate refugee doesn't exactly fit the definition. There's many people that have been living here for many years that have other forms of relief even though they came to the United States for those reasons. One of the interesting things though in my line of work as I've been doing research into asylum law is that when the law was proposed in the United States back in 1980, if you actually look at the legislative history and the conversations that were happening in the debates, but one of the first drafts of the law actually had imagined the idea of climate refugees, which is really interesting and a lot of people don't talk about it.

Brian:  Really?

Jessica Cisnero...: Later on it was scrapped, but the fact that people were thinking about it back then, I think it just shows that we've known that the climate crisis has been happening for some time and it's finally great to see it at the forefront of people's minds because it really is a threat to all of us.

Brian:  Wow. Jessica, Jessica, you said you've been doing immigration work since 2012 right?

Quinn: Hold on. Let's go back for a second.

Brian:  Since 2012?

Jessica Cisnero...: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Brian:  Now it's 2020. Just a quick question. How old are you?

Jessica Cisnero...: I'm 26. So I've been doing work around immigrants rights and advocacy.

Quinn: Were you eleven?

Jessica Cisnero...: No. No, I was probably 19. I was working in interning at nonprofits, doing a lot of advocacy work around DACA, because that's when 2012 DACA was announced by President Obama. That's when I first started hearing about detention centers and the human rights abuses that happened in there. Trying to advocate around the closure of that, which unfortunately is still a fight that we're facing to this day. Especially when you're talking about in the context of family detention.

Brian:  I mean, you don't want to know what I was doing when I was 19.

Quinn: You don't know what you were doing.

Brian:  I don't even remember.

Quinn: Yeah. Much less 26. Yeah.

Brian:  The reason I'm asking is just because it's incredible.

Quinn: It's inspiring.

Brian:  How does your age and the work that your generation is doing help define your candidacy?

Jessica Cisnero...: Well, I guess it's the way my age is playing out right now. It doesn't play out the way that people expect it to. Where people think that people in my district might be cautious about a 26 year old woman running for Congress. It's actually to our benefit because they're like, "Yeah, we need fresh new ideas. It's great that the younger generation is stepping up and trying to make change," and people find it incredibly inspiring. I think for me the best thing is to see other young people rally behind this campaign because they know it's not just rallying around me as a person. It's rallying them around the issues that are important to us, whether it be addressing the climate crisis, whether it be addressing immigration, especially in the context of the wall which is already being built in areas of our district. Having access to healthcare, right? Basic things that we feel our people deserve and that we deserve the opportunity to have a voice in Congress to fight for those things.

Quinn: That's awesome. I mean it's inspiring. We work a lot with Sunrise and folks like that. It's hilarious and amazing to feel like we are not just like the oldest people in the room, but like by a long shot and it is just so inspiring to literally just say how can we help? What can we do? You guys should run everything at this point. I think that's the idea, right Brian?

Brian:  Yes, please. Take over.

Quinn: Get everybody out of here. Go, go ahead Jessica. What were you going to say?

Jessica Cisnero...: Yeah, I was going to say one of the best things that I've seen as part of this campaign is seeing even younger people that aren't still able to vote. They're 16, 17 years old, 15 year olds being and wanting to be involved with the campaign. I think that's amazing. If you actually take a second to engage with these younger folks, they blow your mind with how much they know and that they really want to make a change as well. I think at this point we know that age doesn't mean that our opinions aren't valid. I think it's our experiences and it's pretty great to see them have an active role in this campaign as well.

Quinn: If anything, I mean again your opinion is more valid just by necessity and the fact that everyone dies and you guys are going to inherit this world for a much longer period of time relative to the 80 year old guys who don't know what Facebook does, who are making all the decisions. So going back to the folks that are coming here. We talk a lot about how we're going to feed 10 billion people in a few years and how in some respects we already have enough food, but we waste it or it's not distributed well. When I think of the raging heat and the unpredictable monsoons in India, or we've just talked about the glaring and growing lack of food security in the Northern triangle in your parents' home country of Mexico. I think it's so much more complicated than can we just feed everybody? On the other hand, it's simple, right? It's so similar everywhere.

Quinn: People need to know where their next meal is going to come from. That's extra important if you are a farmer and a substance farmer. So I just want to go over that because I want to be crystal clear for our listeners who get it. They're progressive action minded folks, but it seems like these folks that you've worked with don't have another choice but to come here. Is that right?

Jessica Cisnero...: Yeah. I mean a lot of these people that I get to work with, they tell me they're like, "I wouldn't be here if I didn't have to." Right? It's really hard to just get up and move somewhere where especially if you don't have family members or friends or just a support network. Right? It's scary. Change is scary. A lot of the people that I talk to, they'll tell me I really would rather be at home, but I just can't be there because there's just no way that I can provide for my family or there's just no way for us to survive.

Quinn: Right. I mean just like you said leaving a support network, leaving behind traditions and places and people that you've grown up with and your parents and grandparents. You don't do that willy nilly.

Jessica Cisnero...: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Brian:  So scary.

Jessica Cisnero...: Right.

Brian:  Texas has just a hell of a lot going on. Right?

Quinn: Feels like an understatement.

Brian:  Yeah. You know from the results of hurricane Harvey and exponential wind power growth to possibly flipping the state house blue. What is your state doing to prepare for, I guess this new world?

Quinn: What does a blue Texas mean to you? If we're able to pull that off.

Jessica Cisnero...: Yeah, I mean there's so much work that's being done by activists and organizers everywhere trying to turn Texas blue. I mean, with this campaign we're trying to focus on South Texas because as y'all know, my race just comes down to the primary and we want to make sure that we're doing our part in being a team player from March to November to turn Texas blue and make sure that we increase voter turnout in South Texas because that would really make a difference. After this, we really hope to address the issues that people are concerned about. I mean obviously healthcare is a big one. Immigration is a big one and the environment also, right? I just think there's so many things to go after. When people ask me like what my number one issue is, it really is getting the money out of politics because I think if we're able to address that, then it's easier to address a whole other host of issues that really need to be addressed.

Jessica Cisnero...: For me, I really want to see an investment in my community because I feel like we've been neglected for far too long from when I was a young girl being raised here in Laredo. There's a 30% poverty rate and that hasn't changed. There's areas in my community where there's no paved roads, where there's no running water, where there's a basic lack of infrastructure, where it's really hard to break the poverty cycle and there's literally a quarter of the people in our district are uninsured and another quarter are having to depend on nutritional assistance and other kinds of benefits because we are below the poverty line. So there's many things. It's not that we're not hardworking people because if you actually look at the unemployment rate, it's below the national average, but people have to work two or three jobs just to make ends meet.

Jessica Cisnero...: That's what I saw having too growing up here. Like my parents had to do that and I saw my neighbors having to do that and struggling to get by. When we do have a blue Texas, I'm going to be fighting and advocating for investment in communities like mine so that we can have a diversity of jobs, right? Where people don't feel like they have to leave to other areas in Texas and instead they can stay here with their families and finally have the things that we deserve.

Quinn: That seems pretty special. I think that's it.

Brian:  Yeah.

Quinn: I think that's pretty great.

Brian:  It sounds just normal and wonderful and like why would it be any other way?

Quinn: Why would you want something different?

Brian:  So Jessica, our goal is to provide specific action steps that our listeners can take to support your mission with their voice and their vote and their dollar. So let's quickly do that so you can get out of here. Lightning round style.

Quinn: Yeah. One question.

Brian:  So one super important question. How can our listeners support you in these last couple of weeks?

Jessica Cisnero...: Yeah. So y'all can support us by volunteering and donating. If you go to, you can find our volunteer link there. You can also find our donate link there. We've been super successful in being able to fundraise for this campaign and it's all been done through grassroots efforts. So every dollar counts, especially heading into March 3rd because it's really going to come down to whether we're able to reach enough voters in time and your donations make that possible. So we really encourage you all to help us with that. Also phone bankers, especially if you're bilingual. This district is 77% Latin X and it's also 65% of people speak Spanish here. So if you speak some Spanish and want to volunteer, please sign up.

Quinn: Okay.

Brian:  Awesome.

Quinn: That's not me because I am the worst language person that's ever existed.

Brian:  It seems crazy that we don't speak Spanish.

Quinn: It's very frustrating.

Brian:  It's very frustrating.

Quinn: My children can speak it so much better than I can. They're smarter than I am. Jessica, this is fantastic. We can't thank you enough for your time today. I truly would love to have you back on after you win and you have a little more time in your life so we can dig into things. One last question for you before you get out of here. Jessica, when was the first time in your life when you realized you had the power of change or the power to do something meaningful?

Jessica Cisnero...: I was eight years old and in elementary and that's when I decided I wanted to be an attorney to advocate for people that look like me and my family and my neighbors.

Quinn: Eight, first of all, that's eight. Jesus.

Brian:  How come? What happened?

Quinn: Yeah, what was behind that?

Jessica Cisnero...: I just noticed that there was a lack of advocacy of people that look like me like spaces where decisions were made I think. So my elementary school was right on the Rio Grande River and sometimes I would see families coming into the United States. I think it was then when I was outside playing on the playground, that I kind of realized that my family didn't look any different than the families that were coming in. That I could tell that they were scared, right? That something was happening. I just didn't know what it was, but it felt wrong. I knew that it had something to do with the government that we were learning about, the laws that we're learning about in basic social studies. It was at that time that I was like I want to be an attorney so I can fight for those families because again, they look just like mine.

Quinn: That's pretty incredible. I don't say this in jest, but how did you know what an attorney was at eight? I mean can't remember like my eighth birthday party.

Brian:  Yeah.

Jessica Cisnero...: I feel like I was probably one of those kids that would argue about everything and make sure that people knew what my opinion was. So I probably had a lot of folks tell me, oh you should probably be a lawyer when you grow up.

Quinn: Right.

Brian:  You're like dammit, fine.

Quinn: Sure. Fine. Well shit, that's really special and man, South Texas is very lucky to have you Jessica and I hope we can help here in these last couple of weeks and push it over the line. Besides just defeating this scumbag, I think the world would be a better place with you in office and man, I'm not sure if we deserve you, but we'll take it. So thank you for deciding to be an attorney at age eight. Thank you for making the time today and for running and yeah, please just keep kicking ass out there. Anything else? Any last thing you want to say before your meeting starts in 30 seconds?

Jessica Cisnero...: I'm about to run out to go make it, but no. Thank y'all so much for the opportunity to be on your podcast. We're really happy that we can count with y'alls support and everybody listening, please tune in and make sure that if we can count on your support, we'd be super grateful for it down here in South Texas.

Quinn: Absolutely. Get out of here, Jessica. Thank you so much.

Brian:  Thank you so much.

Quinn: Thanks to our incredible guest today and thanks to all of you for tuning in. We hope this episode has made your commute or awesome workout or dishwashing or fucking dog walking late at night that much more pleasant. As a reminder, please subscribe to our free email newsletter at It is all the news most vital to our survival as a species.

Brian:  You can follow us all over the internet. You can find us on Twitter at importantnotimp. It's just so weird. Also on Facebook and Instagram at importantnotimportant. Pinterest and Tumblr, the same thing. So check us out, follow us, share us, like us, you know the deal. Please subscribe to our show wherever you listen to things like this. If you're really fucking awesome, rate us on Apple Podcast. Keep the lights on. Thanks.

Quinn: Please.

Brian:  You can find the show notes from today right in your little podcast player and at our website,

Quinn: Thanks to the very awesome Tim Blane for our jamming music, to all of you for listening, and finally most importantly to our moms for making us have a great day.

Brian:  Thanks guys.

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