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Jun 7, 2024, 1:13pm EDT
politicsNorth America

How Democrats lost the immigration debate, according to one of Biden’s old rivals

Former Secetary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro speaking with attendees at the Presidential Gun Sense Forum hosted by Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines, Iowa.
Gage Skidmore/Flickr
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The News

Joe Biden won the 2020 Democratic primary over a field of more progressive candidates, with dreams of dismantling the Trump legacy. Julián Castro, who’d served as the Obama-Biden administration’s final HUD secretary, ran on decriminalizing border-crossing and protecting asylum seekers. Now a commentator for NBC News, Castro was an early, vocal critic of Biden’s asylum order, and he talked with Americana about why. This is an edited transcript of the conversation.

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Q&A

Americana: What was your first gut reaction when you heard about this policy shift?

Julián Castro: It wasn’t unexpected. The administration has been signaling this for a while and, of course, had proposed legislation, which failed a few months ago. Overall, I believe that it’s the wrong direction. I believe it’s going to be hard to claw back the damage that this is going to do to the asylum system in the long run and the injury that it does to our values. I believe that 10, 20, 30 years from now, the country is going to look back on this as a mistake.

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Americana: What are the potential policy consequences of what Biden did, given that a similar action by Trump was already struck down in court?

Julián Castro: First, it’s likely to be struck down again. Second, and perhaps worse, it affirms the Trump playbook. It feeds right into the narrative that there’s an invasion. It feeds into the narrative that the best approach is simply enforcement and rewriting, completely, our asylum laws, doing a 180-degree turn on what we’ve stood for as a country when it comes to asylum.

We didn’t get here overnight. Trump accelerated this descent and Biden didn’t push back enough. He didn’t offer his own positive vision on immigration. Offering a positive vision on immigration is not sufficient to avoid a moment like this, but it is necessary. Now we’re at a point where a lot of Democrats are tripping all over themselves to agree with a policy that under Trump, people would have been in the streets about.

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Americana: Looking back at how Biden talked about this in 2020, and the Democratic platform, I see language like: “I believe we are a nation that welcomes those fleeing persecution.” So is this policy a betrayal of what Democrats promised in 2020?

Julián Castro: Of course. I mean, this is a promise broken. This flies in the face of what Joe Biden articulated as a candidate, the vision that he laid out when he was running. To be fair, somebody might say: Well, look, the circumstances changed. More people are abusing the system. I think [California] Sen. Padilla has it right — you have to push for the ability to better handle that as a country, instead of compromising your values. This executive order is going to require, at some level, the participation of Republicans in Congress. Well, if you’re dealing with something that’s going to require additional funding, then you might as well deal with it in a positive way, like trying to beef up the ability to handle greater asylum requests.

The president got bullied into a corner on this issue. Did he have to do this to win in November? I don’t think he did. I believe, if anything, he could have pointed to the Republican failure to help Democrats pass that bipartisan legislation. The material was already there to work with.

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Americana: Was there a better option available to Biden? If the goal was faster processing of asylum claims, was there something else he could have tried?

Julián Castro: My understanding is that they’re reducing the number of guaranteed hours that a person has to obtain a lawyer. These are changes that basically guarantee that people who would otherwise have a legitimate asylum case lose in the asylum process. I also find that 2,500-person trigger to be completely arbitrary. To me, this looks like a mostly political move, one that contradicts what was promised when he ran last time.

Americana: For the last few months we’ve seen Democrats willing to give up any path to legalization in these negotiations. That’s a change from what we saw five years ago. So what’s happened to the Democrats’ negotiating position?

Julián Castro: This is a classic case of negotiating against yourself. The Republicans spiked that legislation, and then the administration came back and said, we’ll just do a lot of what you wanted.

Americana: In 2019 and 2020, Democrats were reacting to how inhumane the Trump policies were — in their view, in the popular view. How does the party return to that mindset? Does it take another Trump presidency, and a backlash to the deportations that he’s promising to do?

Julián Castro: Unfortunately, that very dark scenario is what it seems like it would take to swing the pendulum back. And that’s not a good way to govern. That’s not a way to hold on to values, and it’s not a way to treat people. My hope is that Trump doesn’t get a second term, and that is that in the years to come, we find a better landing spot than this. Democrats have to make the case for the value of immigrants, and not be afraid to stand up for asylum seekers.

American: So, why is Trump able to run on that and not lose more of the Latino vote? That’s been another story after 2020 — Republicans are far more confident about restricting immigration. They can look at what Greg Abbott’s done, while still running stronger than Trump did in 2016 in the Rio Grande Valley.

Julián Castro: There are more than just Latinos watching this issue. There are more Americans with a good heart that care about how we treat asylum seekers than just brown people.

But here, again, I think it’s instructive that there’s been no positive case made, and no push for more protections for DREAMers and for their parents, for people who have been here in the country for a number of years, who are rooted here. This entire conversation is about people who are very recent arrivals. If this conversation were being had about the DREAM Act, or about DAPA, it might be different. But they’re fighting about people who are just getting here, literally at the border. And that involves a different category of people that have much less political sway. Unfortunately, that makes a difference on this issue.

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