AUSTIN, Texas (Nexstar) – With a relatively low-profile and polling at only 1 percent, Julián Castro took the debate stage in Miami, FL Wednesday night with nine other Democrats vying for the White House.
The only Latino in the crowded 2020 field, Castro led off the immigration debate by pointing out that he was the only candidate who even had a plan in place to deal with the issue.
Castro, a former mayor of San Antonio and housing and urban development secretary under President Barack Obama, unveiled his plan in April of 2019 calling for the elimination of Section 1325 of the “Immigration and Nationality Act,” a part of federal law that makes it a criminal offense to come into the United States without authorization.
Castro’s plan would make it purely a civil matter where an immigration judge could still order a person’s deportation over a civil violation of illegal entry.
“(We need to) go back to the way we used to treat this when somebody comes across the border not to criminalize desperation. They use that law, Section 1325, to justify separating children from their families,” Castro said referring to President Donald Trump’s controversial separation of migrant families crossing the border illegally.
Castro implored all nine candidates on stage with him to terminate the law. Then he singled out the only other Texan on stage for his inaction on the issue.
“Some of us on this stage have called to end that section, to terminate it. Some like Congressman (Beto) O’Rourke have not,” Castro said speaking across the debate stage and shaking his head in disappointment and disbelief.
Castro called O’Rourke’s complacency a “mistake” and said real change to the country’s immigration system will only happen with the repeal of Section 1325.
But O’Rourke, the former El Paso congressman, was quick to defend his record on immigration, saying he introduced legislation when he was in Congress that “would ensure that we don’t criminalize those who are seeking asylum and refuge in this country.”
“I’m not talking about asylum, I’m talking about everyone else,” Castro shot back.
“Asylum is just one small part of this. I’m talking about a comprehensive rewrite of our immigration laws,” O’Rourke said before Castro jumped in.
“That’s actually not true,” Castro said, pointing out that a lot of the people coming across the southern border of the U.S. are not seeking asylum but are undocumented immigrants.
He said if O’Rourke “did (his) homework on this issue” that he’d understand why “we should repeal this section.”
Immigration was an issue that dominated both Wednesday and Thursday’s debates and Josh Blank, manager of polling and research for The Texas Politics Project, said it was Castro’s passion about one of the top issues in this 2020 race that helped him stand out in a crowded field.
“Castro can be a bit of a wallflower sometimes but what was surprising in this debate was how combative, forceful and what a presence he was when there were actually so many more people to compete with,” Blank said.
Jeremy Wallace, a politics reporter for the Houston Chronicle, said Castro needed “those split-screen moments” with the candidates like O’Rourke to push the real issues surrounding immigration today.
“You see that dynamic when you have two Texans on stage, which is rare for a presidential debate, especially for a Democratic presidential debate,” Wallace said. “They were able to take on that issue (of immigration) and solidify that this is their issue.”
But the crisis situation at the southern border went far beyond the debate stage this week.
The image of a drowned Salvadoran man, Oscar Martinez, and his daughter, Valeria, tucked under his shirt, her right arm slung around his neck lying face down in the Rio Grande River underscored the dark reality of just how dangerous that journey from Central America to the United States is.
In Congress this week, Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, said the picture of Martinez and his daughter Valeria represents a bigger problem.
“The photograph that all of us saw this week should tear all of us up,” Escobar said. “Oscar and Valeria represent tens of thousands of migrants who have died as they have tried to build a better life for themselves only to find that they are demonized and locked out of the promise that those of us who are natural born citizens are so fortunate to enjoy.”
For the child migrants who managed to make it to the U.S. alive, reports of crowded and unsanitary conditions in holding facilities like in Clint, Texas, are drawing staunch criticism.
“The children are not being cared for at all. No hygiene, no toothbrush, no diapers for the little ones,” said Julie Lythcott-Haims, a mother who drove 17 hours to the holding facility to show her support.
Customs and Border Protection officials say reports of unsanitary conditions are overblown. The CBP organized a tour for reporters to see inside the Clint facility. Reporters were not allowed to bring cameras in, but CNN reporter Nick Valencia described what he saw.
“We saw a total of 9 cells, some cells had between 20-24 child migrants in them. Some who look like they’d been through some very hard days,” Valencia said. “One with bloodshot eyes, another who was sick with yellow eyes but wasn’t quarantined. Another sick migrant teenage girl was quarantined by herself.”
Moderators at this week’s debate presidential debates reiterated that this will be a crisis the next president will inherit.
But Thursday the House passed a $4.6 billion Senate bill, 305-102, over objections from progressive Democrats over House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s concession to “reluctantly” take up the bill in order to get aid to the children fastest.
The bill overwhelmingly passed the Senate and will provide funding to care for children in federal custody. The measure does not include funding for President Trump’s border wall.