SAN ANTONIO (CN) – Hours after President Donald Trump touched down in San Antonio on Wednesday for a fundraising trip, Democratic presidential hopeful Julian Castro, the city’s former mayor, held a counter-rally where he assailed the administration’s harsh immigration policies as “an absolute failure.”
“We’re here today because we stand up for immigrants,” Castro, a former Obama cabinet official, said. “We’re here today because we believe in putting people first.”
Castro, who announced a White House run on Jan. 12, used the president’s trip to his hometown to shift the focus on his own immigration plan, something he hopes will help him breakout in the crowded field of some 15 Democrats vying to take on Trump in 2020.
The grandson of a Mexican immigrant, Castro repeatedly slammed Trump for what he called “his lies” in his roughly 35-minute unscripted remarks, delivered in front of a large American flag under the shadow of the historic Tower of the Americas. He told the crowd of hundreds assembled in Hemisfair Park that the president’s recent threats to cut off aid to Central America and to close the southern border are “downright stupid.”
“I’m not afraid of his lies, of the fear, of the paranoia that he’s trying to stoke in our country,” Castro said. “I’m not afraid of the division that he’s trying to stoke in the hearts of so many people that he’s counting on to win another small Electoral College victory in 2020.”
But Trump had been long gone by the time Castro hit the stage Wednesday evening, where supporters ate from taco trucks and listened to mariachis from Castro’s alma matter high school. The president arrived in San Antonio just before noon for a private $2,800-a-person fundraiser at the exclusive members-only Argyle dinner club, expected to bring in millions for his re-election campaign.
Trump’s motorcade was met with cheers from enthusiastic residents standing on their lawns, including a group of women who prayed together for the president’s safety, and a man who yelled, “the fake news has arrived!”
No demonstrations against Trump were evident along his route.
At an immigration roundtable, Trump unexpectedly summoned reporters to what was supposed to be a closed press discussion with local Texas officials and ranchers. He said the group told him about illegal border crossers dying or putting the safety of local residents at risk, according to a pool report.
“This never comes out in the fake news,” Trump told the group of supporters assembled around him. “Dangerous people are coming here and the good people are dying. This has nothing to do with politics; this has nothing to do with campaigning…who the hell can live like this?”
Castro, by contrast, pushed back on Trump’s depiction of the southern border as unsafe, something local leaders and residents in cities from McAllen to El Paso have also disputed. He also rallied against the Trump administration’s hard-lined immigration agenda, and took a swipe at his fellow Democratic contenders for not having their own plan to solve the issue “that this president has made front and center in his campaign.”
“Why wouldn’t every candidate have an immigration plan?” he asked before launching into his detailed plan to fix the nation’s immigration system, unveiled last week. The plan calls in part for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and an end to laws established under Presidents Trump and George W. Bush.
“The idea is simple: we’re not going to treat migrants like criminals,” Castro said of his plan. “We’re going to treat them like human beings. We’re not going to cage families; we’re going to treat them with respect.”
Castro has yet to gather enough steam to pull him out of low early polling and move him to top-tier status. But with his own personal story intertwined in the immigration debate, Castro’s detailed plan and bold attacks on Trump reflect his intent to set himself apart from the rest of the field, including fellow Texan Beto O’Rourke, who held his own hometown rally decrying Trump’s policies in February.
“This is personal for me,” he said. “I grew up with a grandmother who came over from Mexico in 1922 when she was a little girl of 7 years old. I see the face of my grandmother in the migrants that are coming across the border today….who are fleeing dangerous circumstances in countries like El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.”
Castro will participate Thursday in his own town hall discussion with CNN’s Don Lemon, one of a series of question and answer sessions the network is hosting with Castro and four other Democratic candidates. He will then travel to Iowa over the weekend for his third campaign swing of the early primary state.
Daniel Conrad contributed to this report.