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Julian Castro plans to get out the immigrant vote in 2020

Former presidential candidate talks about immigration policy, voting rights and other issues

While Julián Castro’s run for president may have ended earlier this year, his work as a key, multifaceted purveyor of progressive politics in the 2020 election has only started gaining steam. 

In his time on the primaries debate stage, Castro unapologetically centered conversations about immigration, policing, climate justice, and indigenous and transgender rights — issues that other Democratic candidates hesitated to broach. Even as his campaign faltered in the polls, he succeeded in moving the debate to the left, with many of the other candidates eventually embracing his policy positions. 

On Jan. 2, Castro, who served as Housing and Urban Development Secretary under President Barack Obama, announced the end of his campaign. 

“I’m not done fighting,” he said at the time. “I’ll keep working towards a nation where everyone counts, a nation where everyone can get a good job, good health care and a decent place to live.”

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Living up to his word, Castro joined forces with former Vice President Joe Biden, supporting and speaking up for the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. He also is working to unseat the incumbent president on another level. In May, Voto Latino, an organization that helps register voters, announced that Castro would serve as senior advisor, helping the group reach its goal of registering at least 1 million of the roughly 32 million eligible Latino voters in the country. 

As CQ Roll Call reported earlier this year, an estimated 3.1 million immigrants were expected to be naturalized between the last presidential election and this one – many in key battleground states. These votes were expected to play a decisive role in local, state and national elections this fall.

But then the coronavirus pandemic hit. 

The agency processing citizenship applications and hosting naturalization ceremonies briefly halted in-person services amid the pandemic and, despite pleas from some congressional lawmakers, declined to hold these ceremonies virtually. Now, the agency, U.S. Citizens and Immigration Services, which is run almost entirely through application fees paid by immigrants, is running out of money and is threatening to furlough 70 percent of its workforce. That jeopardizes the momentum of growth in naturalized citizen voters – which the Pew Research Center projected could be as much as 10 percent of the 2020 electorate.

As November draws nearer, the pandemic also has raised concerns around health care and income inequality. The debate around overhauling police policy has also heated up following the killing of George Floyd in the hands of Minneapolis police. Together, these events have again thrust a spotlight on many issues that represented the centerpiece of Castro’s campaign, and by extension, on him. 

CQ Roll Call spoke with Castro about naturalizations, proposed changes in immigration policy, voting rights, and other issues that may become central to the 2020 election. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Question: So first off, Secretary Castro, we wanted to talk about naturalized immigrants and the election. At a broad scale, naturalized citizens tend to vote at slightly lower rates than native born population, but that gap’s been closing. What about this election do you think might change that? 

Castro: My hope is that in 2020, we’re going to see an unprecedented level of voter participation, including by recently naturalized citizens, and those who may have been naturalized years ago. I’m confident that that’ll happen because people are being energized. 

They’re being activated by a number of different issues. Number one, the pandemic that we’re living through right now, and the impact that’s having on so many families across the United States, particularly the most vulnerable. You have many naturalized citizens who fall into that category. 

Secondly, the economic distress that people are facing.

Third, the issue of immigration. The Trump administration has been uniquely antithetical to the interests of immigrants. And there’s nobody who appreciates the immigrant experience more than naturalized citizens. They recognize that the picture that this president has painted about immigrants, whether documented or undocumented, is simply not the case. I think they’re going to be motivated in 2020 to come out and vote.

For those who are naturalized and registered, my hope is that they play a big role by voting. For those who are undocumented, they have borne the brunt of this coronavirus, and pandemic, as well as the deep economic recession that we’re facing. They are oftentimes essential workers who work for low pay and low benefits and they can’t vote. That means that they need for all of us to be a voice that says that they should have a pathway to citizenship and that they should be treated fairly and justly, because in too many instances, that’s not happening right now.

Q: What role do you see President [Donald] Trump’s policies on immigration playing in this election – not just for naturalized citizens, but for the American voter generally?

Castro: Well, he’s always been a lightning rod. He’s made his political career so far out of trying to juice up his base, using the immigrant as the Boogeyman, demonizing them, trying to squeeze every last ounce of support that he can get from some people who don’t like the idea of immigration into our country. 

In office, he has been the most anti-immigrant president that we’ve had in a very long time. And while that may appeal to a diminishing number of Americans, I’m increasingly confident that a larger share of Americans don’t agree with him. He’s turned them off. In fact, it was revealing that in one recent [Gallup poll] for the first time since the question had been asked in 1965, more Americans favored additional immigration into our country [than those who wanted decreased levels of immigration]. 

So this anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy that the president has made a political career of is backfiring on him in 2020. I believe that people are going to get out to the polls for a lot of different reasons, including to push back on Trump’s anti-immigrant vision of America.

Q: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the rhetoric that has been a through line for the president throughout the pandemic, that has also had an impact on particularly the Chinese American immigrant community?

Castro: President Trump has, with his rhetoric and his policy, put a target on much of the Asian American community in this country. And we’ve seen the numbers that hate crimes against Asian Americans have gone up. The president has given a permission slip to bigots throughout this country to harass, to demean, to discriminate against Asian Americans, especially Chinese Americans, with this rhetoric that he’s using around the coronavirus. On top of that, for decades he has used China as a foil, and not in a positive way.

And he has not spoken up, I don’t think sufficiently, about the contributions that people of color, including Asian Americans, have made and are making to the forward progress of our country. And so it’s important for people to make their voices heard at the ballot box this November to reject Trump’s rhetoric and discriminatory policies. 

Q: In your own run in the Democratic primary, you put a lot of ideas on the table that were not there before. Do you think they will become a part of the presidential debate going forward? 

Castro: During my campaign, I focused on a vision of America that could work for everyone, including the most vulnerable Americans. What we’ve found out, what a lot of families have found out during this coronavirus experience, is that they’re more vulnerable than they ever thought: Whether it’s vulnerable to eviction, vulnerable to a health care catastrophe, vulnerable to losing their job. We need to make investments to ensure that everybody can prosper. And so I believe that many of the things I was bringing up, from ensuring that everybody has a safe, decent, affordable place to live, to ending police violence, to embracing reasonable immigration policy, in the years to come, that those things are resonating now, even more than they did before. 

Q: Vice President Biden recently tweeted that he would like migrant families in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention to be released together. That tweet, to many people watching the immigration debate, was a departure from the Obama administration’s immigration approach, which was criticized for his embrace of family detention and for the large number of deportations. I wonder how you see Vice President Biden’s evolution on this issue?

Castro: At the end of the Obama administration, it invested in the family case management program, which was a pilot program that allowed families to stay together to not be detained and began to change the policy and practice around family detention. So, it makes sense. I think the vice president gets that we don’t need to turn to detention as a means to be able to monitor their court appearances or manage their presence in this country. 

Many of them have relatives, sponsors in the United States with whom they can safely stay, and they will make their court appearances. We saw that in the family case management program. So I believe that the vice president gets it. He’s also articulated a vision for immigration that if he’s elected, would represent the most progressive vision for an incoming president on immigration. To me, that’s a positive.

Q: Given your work with naturalizations and voter engagement, I’m wondering what you think of the halt in in-person naturalization ceremonies, which the administration has blamed on the pandemic. These ceremonies have now resumed and the administration says it will clear its postponed ceremonies by the end of July, but what your thoughts are on the effects of this pause and the agency’s ongoing financial issues?

Castro: There’s a concern that the administration is playing games. I certainly understand the public health aspect. But how are we talking about the size of ceremony here, and more importantly, how are we talking about keeping the actual naturalization process on track so that people become citizens? That’s very important.

These individuals have been working hard to achieve citizenship. They deserve that opportunity to become citizens. And it’s in the national interest that they become fully engaged and fully a part of our democracy, including by having the opportunity to get registered and cast the ballot.

One of the reasons that I’m so excited to partner with Voto Latino to help register new voters for 2020 is because Voto Latino has been so focused on registering voters digitally. So we do have efforts that seek to combat what I think the Trump administration is doing, which is by cutting off the ceremonies, not only creating a backlog where people are not able to become citizens, but where people don’t get registered to vote, because folks are not there in person to help register them. One way around that is the kind of work Voto Latino is doing.

But they need to first become citizens. So we should ensure that they get the opportunity to become full U.S. citizens, and that that’s done regardless of the coronavirus, because it can be done. This administration should get it done.

Q: Since your run for president, the debate around policing has really amped up. I’m wondering how you think it plays into the conversation around immigration. What role does policing, sentencing, incarceration play in deportations, or in the ability of people to obtain citizenship more generally?

Castro: They are very interconnected, both in terms of what underlies our immigration detention system and our prison system, which is the over-policing of Black and brown communities; the devaluation of Black and brown lives, a profit motive that too often drives greater imprisonment or detention; a pipeline to prison or detention that is created by over-policing different communities. So they have a lot in common. And also some of the solutions to this, they share: Getting rid of for-profit prisons and detention centers; getting local police out of the business and doing the work of federal immigration officials; changing use of force and disciplinary policy and transparency and accountability among law enforcement, whether that is ICE or local police.

Both with regard to traditional local policing and federal immigration enforcement, they need to be reimagined. They need to be changed fundamentally and not just adjusted at the edges.

Q: You talked a little bit about reimagining the federal role in immigration as well as some of the police in your own run for president. You proposed a few things like ending qualified immunity. How do you envision a Biden administration or, if there’s the political will, the Trump administration, might deal with the Republican Senate and the filibuster in trying to get those things done?

Castro: Well, there’s no question that that’s a tall order. I’m encouraged that the House passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. Now, it’s sitting at Mitch McConnell‘s doorstep. At least there’s a glimmer of hope that perhaps there can be some meeting in the middle, and substantial reform can be done. That is only a first start at the kind of broader law enforcement reform we need to do. The reimagining of public safety — that is a longer term goal.

Whether we’re talking about legislation on policing or the HEROES Act, or any number of other items, Mitch McConnell has been a huge roadblock. Frankly, the best way to change that is to elect the new senator in Kentucky, and for Democrats to control the Senate on January 20, 2021. I believe the way things are going right now that on January 20, next year, we’re going to have a Democratic president, a Democratic House, and Democratic Senate.

I would get rid of the filibuster. Mitch McConnell and his buddies have used that unreasonably and unnecessarily to block very good legislation, including the HEROES Act that is absolutely needed right now. If we want to get health care done, if we want to get good investments in education done, if we want to get in a legislative fix to Citizens United so we can get big money out of politics, the only way to get around it, the only way to do those things, is to do away with the filibuster.

Q: Assuming then that there would be a Democratic Senate. What do you think Congress and, you know, a potential Biden administration should do to address the rights of minority voters and naturalized citizens in a new Congress?

Castro: There needs to be a full court press to make it easier, not harder, to vote. And easier, not harder, to earn citizenship. People have to wait too long right now. The system is like a labyrinth to a lot of families. We need a wholesale fix of our immigration system. I have said many times that we don’t only have to address the undocumented immigrants who were in our country, but also we need to fix our legal immigration system.

Secondly, we make it easier to vote. That means investing in state and in county governments to have updated voting equipment, to have uniform cybersecurity. It means a Department of Justice with the will to go after states that try and suppress the vote. It means a 21st century Voting Rights Act that has teeth again.

I also think that the next few years are going to provide an opportunity for voices from communities that have been traditionally underrepresented to have more political sway and power in city halls, state legislatures, and the halls of Congress. That will help to engage new voters in communities that often don’t vote enough, like the Latino communities that I come from.

Q: Speaking of your roots, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how your home state of Texas is looking at handling the elections this year, amid the pandemic?

Castro: For years now, the governing Republican majority in Texas has tried to do what they can to stave off the effect of demographic change in our state. They’ve done gerrymandering; they’ve done voter ID; they’ve stripped people off the voter rolls; they’ve closed many hundreds of polling locations across the state. They’re not allowing universal mail-in ballots during this pandemic, effectively forcing people to choose between risking their health and exercising their right to vote.

We need to do a 180 on all of that. We need to make it easier to vote by having both universal mail-in ballot and also physical voting locations. We need to make it easier for people to register to vote, including online voter registration, and even automatic voter registration. We need to provide greater voter education, including in high schools.

The day is quickly coming when Democrats are going to control the governor’s mansion in Texas, as well as the state House and the state Senate. The first order of business should be dismantling the devices of voter suppression that Republicans have put in place over the last few decades.