HOUSTON (CN) — First among Democratic presidential candidates, Julián Castro has called for repeal of a law that criminalizes entering the country without documents. In Houston on Sunday he said he does not believe in separating families or in “criminalizing desperation.”
At a town hall meeting sponsored by the Harris County Democratic Party, Castro, 44, stepped on stage to raucous applause from more than 400 people squeezed into pews at St. John’s United Methodist Church in downtown Houston.
The Harvard Law School graduate and former secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development was raised with his twin brother, Congressman Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, by a single mother in San Antonio, with help from his grandmother who immigrated to Texas at age 7 in 1922 from northern Mexico after she was orphaned.
In 2012 Castro became the first Latino to give the keynote address at a Democratic National Convention. He said on Sunday he didn’t know if his grandma had illegally crossed into the United States or if she had papers until a few days before he gave that speech, and learned she did have an immigration pass.
“So it’s a very personal issue for me . … I don’t believe in criminalizing desperation,” Castro said.
Though the United States made it a federal crime to enter the country without permission with passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, Section 1325, Castro said the government “didn’t see it as worth enforcing and treated it as a civil matter” until 2004, when it began prosecuting it as a crime.
Castro said such prosecutions were the basis of the Trump administration’s family-separation policy, as once parents were charged with the misdemeanor they were taken away from their children in immigrant detention centers and placed in the custody of the U.S. Marshal’s Service.
“If we want to guarantee no future administration is going to separate families, we need to repeal it. … It’s cruel, inhumane, un-American and we’re not going to do it” Castro said to loud applause.
At Wednesday’s presidential debate in Miami, Castro said: “I want to challenge every single candidate on this stage to support the repeal of Section 1325,” and told his fellow Texan, former Congressman Beto O’Rourke, that he was making a mistake by failing to support repeal.
Castro played down the conflict Sunday. He said it’s nothing personal and that he and his brother like O’Rourke, and campaigned for him in his near-miss bid in 2018 to unseat U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
Castro took a handful of questions from the audience throughout the hour-long event, about mass shootings, LGBTQ rights, climate change, police reform, affordable housing and abortion.
He said as San Antonio’s mayor from 2009 to 2014 he signed an anti-discrimination law that included protections for LGBTQ people, and a 400-megawatt farm was built in San Antonio during his tenure that created 805 local jobs.
“If I’m elected president, the first executive order I’d sign would be to recommit the U.S. to the Paris Climate Agreement,” Castro said. The 2016 agreement was signed by 195 countries that pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to try to limit global warming.
One of Donald Trump’s first actions as president was to withdraw the United States from the accord.
On marijuana, Castro said: “I believe we should legalize it.” He said he’s a fan of states that expunge marijuana possession convictions.
“Poor people and people of color have been over sentenced,” he said. “There’s no reason we should continue to punish them, and prevent them from getting loans and renting apartments.”
Castro said as president he would repeal the (Henry) Hyde Amendment, which prohibits use of federal funds to pay for abortions. “Many poor women can’t afford abortions,” he said.
And if he had the opportunity, he said, he would appoint a U.S. Supreme Court justice who would preserve Roe v. Wade, as states including Georgia, Alabama and Missouri have recently passed restrictive abortion laws intended to provoke the Supreme Court to revisit the 1973 ruling that held women have a constitutional right to the procedure.
Castro said he’s the only candidate whose housing plan calls for elimination of homelessness by 2028.
“Let me explain that, because when people hear that they say, ‘What — 2028?’ That’s only nine years away. We know how to do this. This is a matter of political will.”
He said President Barack Obama’s administration from 2010 to 2016 reduced veteran homelessness by 47 percent with a program called Opening Doors.
“I was there for 2½ years of that; I can’t take by any means all the credit but I supported the effort,” said Castro, Obama’s HUD secretary from July 2014 to January 2017.
“We can do that for family homelessness in the United States, but we have to invest the right resources and have the right plan to get buy-in from not only Congress, but also mayors, and governors and county officials and nonprofits,” he said.
Ivan Sanchez, a 31-year-old realtor and Democratic Party donor, said after the town hall that when Castro announced he was running for president he thought, “He’s probably going to be a pushover, or he should have run for Senate, but now it’s like, hey, he’s playing with the big dogs.”
Sanchez added: “It’s an inspiration to see someone that I can relate to being on the big stage. Back in 2008 I was inspired when someone of color took over the White House, but now someone that actually can talk the language that I was born with, Spanish, and actually talk about the issues very intellectually and spot-on on the progressive values that he’s bringing to the table, it makes me very proud.”
Dominique Dismuke, 22, said she’d just moved back to Houston from Mississippi where she was enrolled in the University of Southern Mississippi. Sitting in a pew with her arms folded over her belly, watching people getting on stage to take photos with Castro, she said abortion “is an emotional topic” because she’s 7 months pregnant.
“When it comes down to reproductive rights I do feel strongly to leave it in the hands of the mother, to leave it in the hands of the family, and I enjoy that he’s supportive of that,” she said.
She agreed with Castro that some women can’t afford abortions. “It’s interesting that people don’t look into the dynamics of what that entails. … In Mississippi, there’s only one clinic and it’s probably at least $600 and that’s somebody’s rent money, that’s somebody’s well-being,” she said.
Castro will be back in Houston on July 5 for a presidential candidate forum sponsored by the National Education Association. O’Rourke, former Vice President Joe Biden, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, and Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar also will speak at the event.