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In First Debate, Julián Castro Challenges Democrats to End the Criminalization of Immigration

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The Democrats’ first debate was held in Miami, Florida. The venue was less than an hour away from Homestead, Florida, where more than 2,000 unaccompanied minors are incarcerated in a for-profit detention center run by Caliburn. Trump’s former Chief of Staff Gen. John Kelly sits on its board. Prior to the debate, Senators Warren and Klobuchar visited the facility. During the debate, Julián Castro, the former secretary of housing and urban development, criticized the immigration policies of fellow Texan, former Congressmember Beto O’Rourke. We air part of the debate and speak to Ana María Archila of the Center for Popular Democracy.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: On [Wednesday] night, 10 Democratic presidential candidates took part in the first debate of the 2020 presidential race. Another 10 Democrats will be debating tonight. The debate focused in part on the economy, healthcare, immigration, gun control, Iran and climate change. It was a historic night with three female candidates taking part: Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. It marked the first time more than one female candidate appeared in a major political party debate in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Near the end of Wednesday’s debate, moderator Chuck Todd asked candidates to use one word to describe the greatest geopolitical threat facing the United States. Former Maryland Congressmember John Delaney spoke first.

JOHN DELANEY: The biggest geopolitical challenge is China.


JOHN DELANEY: But the biggest geopolitical threat—


JOHN DELANEY: —remains nuclear weapons.


JOHN DELANEY: Right? So, those are—you know, those are different questions.

CHUCK TODD: I got ya. Totally get it. Go ahead, Governor Inslee.

GOV. JAY INSLEE: The biggest threat to the security of the United States is Donald Trump, and there’s no question about it.

CHUCK TODD: OK. Congresswoman Gabbard?

REP. TULSI GABBARD: The greatest—

CHUCK TODD: Greatest geopolitical threat.

REP. TULSI GABBARD: The greatest threat that we face is the fact that we are at a greater risk of nuclear war today than ever before in history.

CHUCK TODD: Senator Klobuchar?

SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR: Two threats: economic threat, China, but our major threat right now is what’s going on in the Mideast with Iran if we don’t get our act together with this president.

CHUCK TODD: OK, try to keep it a one—slimmer than what we’ve been going here. One or two words, please.

BETO O’ROURKE: Our existential threat is climate change. We have to confront it before it’s too late.

CHUCK TODD: Senator Warren?

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: Climate change.

CHUCK TODD: Yeah. Senator Booker?

SEN. CORY BOOKER: Nuclear proliferation and climate change.

CHUCK TODD: Secretary Castro?

JULIÁN CASTRO: China and climate change.

CHUCK TODD: Congressman Ryan.

REP. TIM RYAN: China, without a question. They’re wiping us around the world economically.

CHUCK TODD: And Mr. Mayor?

MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO: Russia, because they’re trying to undermine our democracy, and they’ve been doing a pretty damn good job of it, and we need to stop them.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Wednesday’s debate was held in Miami, Florida. The venue was less than an hour away from Homestead, Florida, where more than 2,000 unaccompanied minors are incarcerated in a for-profit detention center run by Caliburn. Trump’s former Chief of Staff General John Kelly sits on its board. Prior to the debate, Senators Warren and Klobuchar visited the facility.

AMY GOODMAN: During the debate, Julián Castro, the former secretary of housing and urban development, former mayor of San Antonio, criticized the immigration policies of fellow Texan, former Congressmember Beto O’Rourke. Castro called for the repeal of Section 1325 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which criminalizes crossing the border at places other than ports of entry.

JULIÁN CASTRO: Let’s be very clear. The reason that they’re separating these little children from their families is that they’re using Section 1325 of that act, which criminalizes coming across the border, to incarcerate the parents and then separate them. Some of us on this stage have called to end that section, to terminate it. Some, like Congressman O’Rourke, have not. And I want to challenge all of the candidates to do that.


JULIÁN CASTRO: I just think it’s a mistake, Beto. I think it’s a mistake. And I think that if you truly want to change the system, then we’ve got to repeal that section. If not—


JULIÁN CASTRO: —then it might as well be the same policy.

BETO O’ROURKE: José, let me—

JOSÉ DÍAZ-BALART: Very briefly.

BETO O’ROURKE: Let me respond to this, very briefly.

JOSÉ DÍAZ-BALART: Since you were—OK.

BETO O’ROURKE: Actually, as a member of a Congress, I helped to introduce legislation that would ensure that we don’t criminalize those who are seeking asylum and refuge in this country.

JULIÁN CASTRO: I’m not talking about—

BETO O’ROURKE: If you’re fleeing—

JULIÁN CASTRO: I’m not talking about the ones that are seeking asylum.

BETO O’ROURKE: If you’re fleeing desperation, then I want to make sure—

JULIÁN CASTRO: I’m talking about—

BETO O’ROURKE: I want to make sure that you’re treated with respect.

JULIÁN CASTRO: I’m talking about everybody else. I’m still talking about everybody else.

BETO O’ROURKE: But you’re looking at just one small part of this. I’m talking about a comprehensive rewrite of our immigration laws.

JULIÁN CASTRO: That’s not true.

BETO O’ROURKE: And if we do that, I don’t think it’s asking too much—

JULIÁN CASTRO: That’s actually not true. I’m talking about—

BETO O’ROURKE: —for people to follow our laws when they come to this country.

JULIÁN CASTRO: I’m talking about millions of folks. A lot of folks that are coming are not seeking asylum. A lot of them are undocumented immigrants, right? And you said recently that the reason you didn’t want to repeal Section 1325 was because you were concerned about human trafficking and drug trafficking. But let me tell you what: Section 18—


JULIÁN CASTRO: Title 18 of the U.S. Code, Title 21 and Title 22 already cover human trafficking.

BETO O’ROURKE: If we apprehend a known smuggler or drug trafficker—

JULIÁN CASTRO: I think that you should do your homework on this issue.

BETO O’ROURKE: —we’re going to make sure that they are deported and criminally prosecuted.

JULIÁN CASTRO: If you did your homework on this issue, you would know that we should repeal this section.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that is Julián Castro and Beto O’Rourke, fellow Texans, in last night’s Democratic debate in Miami, Florida.

We begin our hour roundtable with Ana María Archila, co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy, longtime immigration activist. You may remember her putting her foot in the door of the elevator at the time of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings to prevent Jeff Flake, the senator—try to challenge him on his support for Brett Kavanaugh. But we’re sticking with immigration right now.

Ana María Archila, it’s great to have you with us.


AMY GOODMAN: This was one of the most heated sections of the night. Again, this debate taking place just over a half an hour away from a detention facility for over 2,300 migrant children. Talk about the challenge Julián Castro put out to Beto O’Rourke.

ANA MARÍA ARCHILA: Well, Julián Castro is leading the conversation about how to imagine a new framework for immigration laws, how to really address the cruelty of our immigration enforcement system. And he challenged Beto O’Rourke—and, frankly, he challenged the whole field—to stop using the same old framework of comprehensive immigration reform that, essentially, for the last 20 years, presented a solution to the broken immigration system that said legalization for some in exchange for the militarization of the border, more deportations, more detentions—essentially, more cruelty towards immigrant families.

Julián Castro is saying the first thing we have to do is stop the worst part of our immigration system, which is the denial of asylum cases for people that come to the ports of entry, the criminalization of migration, the criminalization of desperation, which is—there are sections in the law that have enabled the Trump administration to essentially grab adults that are coming to our borders in search of refuge, treat them as people who have broken criminal laws, and separate them from their children, essentially causing a generation of damage to thousands and thousands of children, who are now sitting in jail-like facilities in Florida, in Texas and in states across the country.

AMY GOODMAN: And Beto O’Rourke would not sign on to this. He would not call for removal of that section, that was what? Put into place some 90 years ago.

ANA MARÍA ARCHILA: That’s right. What Julián said was, there are senators in Massachusetts and senators in New Jersey, both two states that are not border states, who have better policies, more humane ideas about how to treat people who are coming to our borders. And Julián has actually presented a very comprehensive, very visionary idea of how to treat immigrants as human beings and really transform the immigration system.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what about Cory Booker? He was also asked what he would do on—when he was asked what he would do on day one, if he were elected. He focused exclusively on immigration policies. Your response to the points that he made?

ANA MARÍA ARCHILA: I think they—I think Senator Booker and many of the other candidates understand that in order to respond to the Trump administration’s scapegoating of immigrants, they need to present a vision that is fundamentally different, a vision that is rooted in the idea that we can and should be an inclusive society, and that in order to be that, we need to make sure that we are not treating people in the most inhumane ways, as the Trump administration has. So, the candidates, like Booker, like Castro, like Senator Warren, who are actually leaning into the issue of immigration, are the ones that are essentially presenting like a much more clear contrast to the Trump administration.

Those candidates, usually, for a long time, Democrats, have run away from immigration. They consider this issue a dangerous issue in elections, and they run away from it. And when they run to it, they say, “Well, we need to enforce our laws in order to give people some reprieve, in order to give people some path to citizenship.” That framework has not worked. It has only resulted in more detentions, more deportations. It has resulted in the deaths of people at the border, the death of Óscar and Valeria and many, many others. And we need to change that. And they need to present a vision that is totally different.

AMY GOODMAN: And you’re talking about Óscar and Valeria, the 25-year-old dad and his little 23-month-old girl, Valeria, whose now picture, by a Mexican journalist, face down in the Rio Grande, drowned, has been the backdrop of this week, both around the immigration bill in Congress, around these debates. You have Klobuchar—Senators Klobuchar and Warren going to the Homestead facility. Twenty-three hundred unaccompanied minor migrant children are jailed there.


AMY GOODMAN: And you have General Kelly, President Trump’s former chief of staff, now on the board of Caliburn, that runs that facility. Congressmembers are asking for him to be investigated. But you have Biden speaking tonight, who has been the vice president for eight years under Obama, and although there’s no question Trump has taken the terror and the brutality against migrants to a new height, President Obama built up the infrastructure.


AMY GOODMAN: What do you expect Biden to say?

ANA MARÍA ARCHILA: I don’t expect vision from Biden. I don’t expect that much courage from Biden. Biden is responsible for the passage of the ’94 crime bill, which resulted in the massive expansion of criminalization, mass incarceration in our country, investment in the militarization of police across the country. Senator Biden is not someone who we can expect to lead on issues of criminal justice and racial justice.

But it is—there is a tremendous opportunity for Democrats to actually part ways with their own history. It is true that, under Obama, immigrant families suffered tremendous levels of criminalization, of deportation. He helped expand the detention apparatus, a lot of which is a for-profit system. Seventy percent of people who are in immigrant detention centers are sitting in for-profit cells, with people like John Kelly making money for every child that is incarcerated in Homestead. So, we need to end the entanglement of our government with for-profit companies that are making money from the caging of children and families. And we need to make sure that the policies that have resulted in so many deaths, so many family separations, so much cruelty at the border and in the interior, are fundamentally changed.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to our discussion. Ana María Archila is the co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy. We have a roundtable on this first of two Democratic presidential primary debates that are taking place in Miami, the first last night, the second one tonight. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute, heading to Miami.

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