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Why Is Julián Castro The Only Democratic Presidential Candidate With An Immigration Plan?

Gabriel C. Pérez
Julián Castro speaks at the She the People forum for 2020 Democratic presidential candidates at Texas Southern University last month."

Immigration is likely to be a key issue in the 2020 presidential election, but so far Democratic candidates have largely shied away from the issue in their campaigns.

Julián Castro hasn't.

The former HUD secretary and mayor of San Antonio is currently the only major Democratic candidate with an actual plan on how to tackle immigration.

Earlier this year, Castro released a plan to decriminalize immigration, as well as rollback several Trump administration policies. It's a sweeping plan that would revamp the way the U.S. handles illegal immigration – as well as legal immigration programs like visas, refugee resettlement and asylum.

During a small fundraiser earlier this month at a bar in a stylish hostel in East Austin, Castro talked about his plan, as well as what he saw as serious issues with the way the Trump administration is handling families seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border.

"This president has been the worst president when it comes to opening up our arms to people seeking asylum for legitimate reasons," he said.

Recently, the Trump administration has been "metering," or limiting, the number of asylum-seekers allowed in the U.S. each day. Officials are also requiring asylum-seekers to stay in Mexico while their claims are considered.

Castro said he wants to end both policies, but his plan goes farther. According to Castro's "People First Immigration Policy," he also wants to increase access to legal assistance for those families. Castro basically wants to make the asylum process better for people who are seeking it.

"I am telling the American people, 'Hey, there's another better way to do this and this is it,'" Castro told KUT. "And make it a fight about who we are. Are we a cruel nation, or are we a kind nation?"

Castro is not only the only major candidate with a comprehensive immigration plan, but he is also the only Latino running for president, so far. Immigration activists have said the fact that Castro comes from an immigrant family could be part of the reason he's not shying away from this issue.

"The Latinx community and people of color across the country are paying attention right now."

So far, Castro isn't just disagreeing with Trump administration policies; he has also created a long list of things he thinks the U.S. should be doing when it comes to immigration. That's something he said any candidate is going to need if they end up challenging Trump in 2020.

"You have to do that, because that's what he's going to run on," he said. "That's how he thinks he's going to win with a narrow electoral college victory again."

Immigration rights advocates say this is something that Democratic candidates should be taking seriously, as well.

"I am convinced that no candidate will make it out of the Democratic primary who does not provide a realistic, sensible solution and set of policy ideas related to the immigration crisis that we are facing in this country," said Jose Garza, the executive director of the Workers Defense Project.

Garza said there's no way candidates can avoid talking about immigration.

Adrian Reyna, director of strategies for the immigrant rights nonprofit United We Dream, said he is certain immigration will be a key issue in 2020.

"Just like we saw that it was in 2018 and how it was in 2016," he said. "And it's mostly going to be coming from the Trump camp."

Reyna said Trump made immigration the main mobilizer of his base and he said he did it by "stoking fears" about immigrants.

He said any candidate that doesn't have a comprehensive plan that lays out their vision for what immigration should look like will fall into the same trap that Democrats fell into in 2016.

"I think that a key challenge we faced in 2016 was the approach of just saying, 'I am not like Donald Trump,'" he said. "And that comes with the inability to get voters to understand what the Democratic candidate is truly behind."

"I am not afraid of the president or his position on the issue of immigration."

The problem is that Democrats also have many reasons to stay away from immigration.

For one – it's divisive. According to recent polling, Democratic voters in Iowa and New Hampshire – where the first nominating contests in 2020 will take place – say health care, education and climate change are more important problems.

However, Alec Tyson, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center, said immigration has been gaining.

"A larger share of voters – at least in 2016 – said it was very important to their vote than they did in 2012 and 2008," he said. "So, we have seen a recent uptick in the share of voters viewing this as very important."

Tyson said surveys show that immigration falls in "the tier just below" top issues like health care.

Garza said not taking immigration seriously won't play well with a key Democratic constituency.

"The Latinx community and people of color across the country are paying attention right now," Garza said. "They are making up their mind about who will stand with them and who will fight side by side with them now."

Credit Julia Reihs / KUT
Julián Castro at his event announcing his candidacy for president on Jan. 12 in San Antonio.

He said it's a misstep if candidates are waiting to come up with a plan – or aren't considering one at all.

Bob Libal, executive director at the social justice advocacy nonprofit Grassroots Leadership, said he "can't imagine that you can be a presidential candidate and not address immigration."

When asked why there aren't a slew of immigration plans from candidates – at least not yet – Libal said he couldn't say.

"I think that if the taking of children from their mothers' arms at the border does not inspire you as a candidate to address this issue in a bold and really meaningful way," Libal said, "then I don't think that you have a vision for a change in this country that is meaningful."

Earlier this month, Castro suggested other candidates have, so far, been afraid to weigh in on the issue.

"They fear, again, this idea of a backlash in certain quarters, and they know that that is a very emotionally resonant issue for some people," he said. "I am not afraid of the president or his position on the issue of immigration."

Ashley Lopez covers politics and health care. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @AshLopezRadio.
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