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“I’m not going to criminalize desperation”: Julián Castro on how his immigration proposals have changed the 2020 race

Bold policy alternatives are the way to beat Trump on immigration, he says.

US presidential candidate Julián Castro speaks from a podium with one hand raised.
Julián Castro speaks to Nevada Democrats in Las Vegas on November 17, 2019.
David Becker/Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

Julián Castro wasn’t on the Democratic debate stage on Wednesday night. And for those waiting to hear from Democrats about how they’re going to reverse President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, his absence was obvious.

Most candidates have stuck to broad statements denouncing, for example, the Trump administration’s practice of putting “kids in cages” on the border. Castro, former secretary of Housing and Urban Development and mayor of San Antonio, wants to put an end to that practice, too — but he also takes a more expansive view of what has gone wrong with America’s immigration system under Trump.

Castro has pushed his Democratic opponents to embrace his proposal to decriminalize the act of crossing the border without authorization by repealing section 1325 of the Immigration and Nationality Act — one of the legal provisions that allowed the Trump administration to separate thousands of immigrant families in 2018.

He was also the first candidate to propose accepting those displaced by climate change as refugees and to visit the camps in Matamoros, Mexico, created by Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, under which more than 60,000 migrants have been sent back to Mexico to wait for decisions on their US asylum applications.

Even Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose progressive bona fides on immigration have been questioned in the past, has put out an immigration plan that closely resembles Castro’s.

But while Castro has been a standard-bearer on immigration, his campaign is facing a do-or-die moment. He threatened to pull out of the race if he didn’t raise $800,000 in the final days of October, a goal he narrowly achieved. He failed to make the cut for the November debate — even though many Democrats, including Rep. Pramila Jayapal, believe his perspective on issues like immigration is critical on the stage.

He’s campaigning to get back on the debate stage in December, and his ideas on immigration might be one of his strongest arguments for why Democrats need him in the race. He saw success on Wednesday night, trending on Twitter and raising more dollars than he had over the prior two debates.

In this conversation, we discuss the way his message on immigration resonates with voters, the aspects of the immigration debate the Democratic field is overlooking, and how the country can move forward from the divisions on immigration stoked by Trump. Here’s the transcript, lightly edited for clarity.

Nicole Narea

You clearly have made immigration a priority in your campaign; you were the first candidate to release an immigration plan. How do you think your candidacy has changed the way Democrats talk about immigration?

Julián Castro

There’s no question that we’ve helped shape the debate on immigration because I released my plan first, and because it was bold and represents a different vision on immigration than this president completely. It’s made other candidates have to grapple with the issue in a way that they may not have if we hadn’t been as quick and bold as we were.

My sense is a lot of candidates wanted to avoid that issue. They either wanted to pretend like it didn’t have to be addressed because they were afraid of it or even backpedal on the issue. I don’t believe that the best way to beat a bully like Donald Trump is to backpedal or to be quiet. It’s to go forward with your own strong vision for the future, and that’s what I’ve done.

Of course, the first debate was a good example of that, and the night after I was on — the way that the candidates answered the questions about section 1325 of the Immigration and Nationality Act is just one example. But also the effort candidates have made to engage migrants at the border, immigration advocacy organizations — all of that has been amped up in part because of our team’s boldness on immigration.

Nicole Narea

That said, immigration still hasn’t featured that heavily in the Democratic debates since early on in the Democratic primary. So, I’m wondering what you think is missing right now from the Democrats’ conversation about immigration and what issues should we be looking at as we head to the general election.

Julián Castro

There’s a lot. One of them at the top of mind these days is DACA. The next president may be confronted with how to ensure that hundreds of thousands of Dreamers, or DACA recipients, are able to stay in the United States. That’s relatively easy because most of the candidates — maybe every candidate — have pledged to do something about that.

Harder is undoing the damage that Trump has done to asylum laws. Just this week, they started exercising one of the safe third country options. They continue to impose a Remain in Mexico program that is cruel and has subjected migrants on the Mexican side of the border to extortion and kidnapping and injury.

And then there’s all the thorny questions around what we’re going to do with ICE, how we’re going to change enforcement, what we’re going to do with the legal immigration system to improve it.

There’s a lot that’s missing from the conversation right now because it’s getting drowned out — you know, the clamor about impeachment. One of the things I’ve clearly seen — this being my first run for president — is issues will be hot for a certain amount of time. There’s this life cycle to the overall campaign. An issue will be hot, and then a couple months later, it will be like it never happened.

This president has been too cruel for us to treat it like it’s just an issue of the day. We need strong, steady leadership on this issue.

Nicole Narea

You’re running on a “People First” platform. How is that reflected in your immigration policy and how is it different from the way that other Democratic candidates are approaching the issue?

Julián Castro

I’ve been clear that I’m not going to criminalize desperation. We need to understand that these are human beings. They’re not a criminal record or an invader or an other. They’re human beings that are simply coming — like generations have before — in search of a better life.

That’s reflected completely in my policy, from eliminating section 1325 to making our immigration courts independent so that people actually get a more fair hearing and also providing them with counsel. Getting rid of those three- and 10-year bars, which put people in the worse kind of position of having to decide whether they’re going to take themselves away from their family so they can have a hope of becoming a citizen the legal way.

We need to treat people like human beings, with common sense and compassion instead of this cruelty that Donald Trump has imposed.

Nicole Narea

How do you think that kind of framing and message on immigration resonates with voters, and do you have any concerns about that message resonating differently with a general election electorate versus the Democratic primary electorate?

Julián Castro

There’s no question this is a hot-button issue, an issue where people have very strong opinions on both sides, and it’s an issue that is susceptible to nativism and the stoking of fear and division and paranoia the way that Trump has done. I recognize that. But I believe the best way to defeat that is to be bold and to be clear and to be steadfast in providing an alternative, not to compromise with the devil.

Nicole Narea

Were you surprised at all that Trump’s rhetoric on the 2016 campaign trail — calling for a wall on the southern border, a “total and complete shutdown” on Muslims entering the US, his disparaging comments about Mexican immigrants — appealed to voters?

Julián Castro

I wasn’t surprised that it had an appeal to some voters. I was somewhat surprised that it had as broad an appeal as it did.

Nicole Narea

You’re a second-generation immigrant, the son of a Chicana activist, you would be the first Latino president. You’ve emphasized those aspects of your identity over the course of the campaign and you’ve even recently called out the primary process for putting an undue emphasis on states like Iowa and New Hampshire, which aren’t demographically representative of the general electorate.

What does the Democratic Party need to do to attract and support more candidates for political office like you?

Julián Castro

It begins with outreach to all of the different communities in our country. Outreach to try to get them to register to vote, investment in recruiting candidates to run for local office, state office, and federal office. The Democratic party needs to get better about actually reaching out and putting in the work and putting in the resources to register people, to turn them out and to encourage them to not only participate in the Democratic process but actually be policymakers in the process.

I think the Democratic Party takes that more seriously now than it used to. But there’s still a long way to go and my hope is that I can be a part of inspiring other people who are growing up like I did to get involved — not only to vote but also to run for office one day, to become leaders in their own right.

Nicole Narea

Is the Democratic Party’s view of the Latino vote nuanced or do you think there is some untapped political potential there?

Julián Castro

It’s getting better. I think they recognize that there are different parts of the Latino community, people of different national origin, of course, and different views according to geography.

The approach might be a little bit different if you’re dealing with Mexican Americans in Texas versus Venezuelan Americans in South Florida or Puerto Ricans in Orlando or ninth-generation Mexican Americans in Colorado. There’s a growing recognition and a growing nuanced approach. I’m confident that under [DNC chair] Tom Perez’s leadership it’s getting better.

Nicole Narea

I wanted to ask you a bit more about one of your policies. You already talked to my colleague Ezra Klein about your proposal to decriminalize border crossings. I wanted to ask you about your proposal to inject aid in Central America to improve the circumstances driving migrants to flee. You call it the new Marshall Plan.

Why do you think it’s important to think of immigration as not just a domestic issue but as a regional issue, a foreign policy issue?

Julián Castro

Because we’re interconnected as nations. What happens in Latin America affects us. And what we do affects the Latin American countries. I see a golden opportunity to put us on a better path with a stronger relationship that allows the United States and these Northern Triangle countries to work together so that people can find safety and opportunity at home and not have to make the dangerous journey to the United States.

I’m not naive. I know our country has often had a rocky relationship with some of these nations and has had a checkered past in some of these countries and arguably has done some things that have helped create the crisis that we see today.

At the same time, I believe if I’m elected president that I would have a unique and unprecedented opportunity to forge more productive, more fruitful relationships with those countries and get us on a better path so we wouldn’t have to face the question of what to do with 150,000 people showing up at our southern border in one month.

Nicole Narea

I don’t know that you’ve really had a chance to elaborate on what exactly this Marshall Plan would look like. How would it be different from aid we’ve injected in Central America in the past?

Julián Castro

No. 1, it would be a higher priority for the president. I’ve learned in leadership that unless you make something a big priority, oftentimes it doesn’t get done. It would have to be a higher priority with more engagement from the president and from relevant principals.

Secondly, we want to find better, more nuanced ways to ensure that the dollars we’re investing in those nations actually benefit the people of those countries in sparking greater opportunity and also helping with increasing safety.

Third, we have new leadership in some of these nations and also in Mexico. So there’s a new opportunity just because of the new leadership that we have in the United States and in these countries to forge a better relationship.

I also think that, even though we’ve done things like the Central American Regional Security Initiative and other foreign assistance, it’s time to take stock of that and to recalibrate our assistance with a particular eye toward creating safety and opportunity there and stemming the flow of people who actually feel compelled to make that dangerous journey.

Nicole Narea

Immigration is such a divisive issue right now, as we’ve talked about. Do you foresee a time in the future when it won’t be quite so contentious? And how do you think we get there?

Julián Castro

I wish I could say that it’s not going to be a contentious issue five years from now, 10 years from now. Anybody that’s looked at history knows that these things go in cycles. You had the Chinese Exclusion Act. You had Operation Wetback and a time when Germans were seen as invaders and people who were bringing down the culture of the country.

Through every generation, there has been an “other,” unfortunately. But it’s also true that in just about every generation, people have risen up to extend a hand to be more welcoming, to live up to the best ideals of the country, and to become the living embodiment of the Statue of Liberty.

That’s what we need to do now, in this moment, and I believe every time people stand up like that, the cycle of welcoming others gets longer and longer and the periods of nativism, of rejection, get shorter and shorter. That’s what we’re working toward.

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