A tragic image shared 24 hours before the first debate set up a massive gulf on immigration policy between a majority of Democrats on the debate stage and President Donald Trump.
When asked about the heart-wrenching photo of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his daughter Valeria floating in the Rio Grande after drowning, former Housing and Urban Development secretary Julián Castro said crossing the border illegally should be a civil, not criminal offense.
A majority of Democrats on the debate stage Wednesday night backed the overhaul, putting presidential contenders directly in contrast with Trump’s alarmist border rhetoric.
“You know, my plan — and I’m glad to see that Senator Booker, Senator Warren, and Governor Inslee agree with me on this, my plan also includes getting rid of Section 1325 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, to go back to the way we used to treat this when somebody comes across the border, not to criminalize desperation, to treat that as a civil violation,” Castro said.
He then attacked his fellow Texan Beto O’Rourke for not embracing the idea.
“I just think it’s a mistake, Beto. I think it’s a mistake. And I think that — that if you truly want to change the system, that we’ve got to repeal that section,” Castro said.
AT ODDS WITH TRUMP’S BORDER POLICY
The policy discussion among Democrats put the leading candidates on stage about as far away as possible on border policy with Trump, who is convinced that going hard on immigration is one of a select number of issues that helps him build a winning coalition in battleground states like Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan.
It doesn’t matter to Republicans if the messaging turns off voters in blue states.
“Castro’s position basically ending the notion of a national border or a national citizenship law is radically crazy and political suicide in most swing states,’ said Republican strategist Brad Todd. “The position of ending borders is part of why Andrew Gillum is not [Florida’s] governor.”
At least one candidate, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, embraced Castro’s plan for the first time on the debate stage after O’Rourke was attacked. O’Rourke said Castro’s position for ending criminal prosecution for people crossing the border illegally would make it tougher for U.S. law enforcement agencies to combat human trafficking or drug smuggling. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar shared a similar view.
“I agree with Secretary Castro,” Ryan said. “I think there are other provisions in the law that will allow you to prosecute people for coming over here if they’re deal in drugs and other things. That’s already established in the law. So there’s no need to repeat it.”
Trump’s campaign blasted Democrats for using the image to promote lesser penalties for entering the country without authorization.
“Democrats also tried to cynically exploit the heart-wrenching images of the tragic deaths of a father and child near our southern border,” the Trump campaign said in a statement after the debate. “The truth is that these same Democrats first denied there was a crisis at the border, then claimed it was manufactured, and now won’t work with President Trump to fix it, choosing to slow walk needed humanitarian aid for illegal immigrant children. Rather than encouraging more people to make the treacherous journey to enter our country illegally with promises of healthcare and amnesty, Democrats should join with the President to enforce our border so that fewer people take such dangerous risks.”
CHANGE THE LAW?
Castro repeatedly referenced his desire to overturn via executive order Section 1325 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, a George W. Bush-era statute that treats crossing the border illegally as a criminal offense. Using executive powers to push immigration policy would also give any 2020 nominee the power to circumvent Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans if they maintain control, giving voters around the country more direct control over policy if implemented.
"I’ll be honest with you, I don’t mind that contrast,” said U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, Julián Castro’s twin brother. “What my brother wants to do means that infants are not going to be separated from their mothers, it means that policy is going to be one of common sense and compassion and not gratuitous cruelty that you see under Donald Trump.”
Julián Castro plans to visit the Homestead detention center on Friday, as the South Miami-Dade facility that houses the largest center for unaccompanied migrant children turned into the symbolic must-visit site for 2020 Democrats.
Joaquin Castro said Florida voters are outraged and ready for a presidential candidate who presents a clear contrast on immigration issues, particularly the treatment of children and asylum seekers.
“I think the people of Florida are closer to common sense and compassion than gratuitous cruelty,” Joaquin Castro said.
But Todd said the Miami voters that are essential to building a winning coalition in Florida will reject that argument if the 2020 nominee advocates for civil penalties for crossing the border illegally. Gov. Ron DeSantis, who embraced Trump’s immigration policies on the U.S.-Mexico border, won in 2018.
“In Florida in particular, Latino Americans of Cuban, Venezuelan, Nicaraguan and Colombian ancestry will find that position chaotic and dangerous,” Todd said.
McClatchy DC reporter Alex Roarty contributed to this report.