NOEL KING, HOST:
Presidential candidate Julian Castro has a plan to change immigration law, and he doesn't seem worried about who attacks it. The Democrat from Texas says crossing the border illegally should no longer be a crime. The former Cabinet secretary is a descendant of Mexican immigrants. And he says if he's elected, he'd completely rethink immigration. He talked to Steve Inskeep as we hear candidates' opening arguments.
STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Why shouldn't crossing the border illegally be a criminal act?
JULIAN CASTRO: For a long time in this country, we actually did not treat crossing the border as a criminal act. We treated it as a civil violation.
INSKEEP: Like a parking ticket.
CASTRO: That's right. You still have a court process. You still have to answer for the transgression, but it was treated like a civil violation. A lot of the problems that we see in the system today flared up after we started treating it as a criminal offense.
INSKEEP: But what do you say to someone listening who thinks well, you know, traveling thousands of miles and crossing the U.S. border sounds more serious than a parking ticket to me.
CASTRO: I would say that the folks who are coming to the southern border are coming because they're absolutely desperate. They can't find safety and opportunity in their home country.
INSKEEP: I want to be clear that one reason you say you want to decriminalize border crossing is because if it's not considered a criminal act, someone is not going to be put in detention for being caught. And you specifically say you want to end detention for border crossing. Does that mean your policy is catch and release?
CASTRO: What it means is that we're not going to, you know, separate little children from their families. Yeah, we're not going to routinely put people in detention. Now, if somebody has committed a crime, then, of course, you're still going to sometimes have the ability to detain somebody.
But let's just say, you know, a mom that has come here with her little baby - I would not incarcerate those folks. I would not treat them as criminals.
INSKEEP: Meaning that you'd give them a court date and release them under the United States...
CASTRO: ...Yeah, I mean, and the fact is that we have - so we actually have ways that have been established to ensure that people actually return for their court dates because a lot of people ask, well, hey, look. You know, what are you talking about? If you just let these folks go, aren't they going to go off and never return for their court date? Well, actually, people actually recognize that they have a responsibility.
INSKEEP: Most people - you're correct. In whatever program, most people do show up for their court dates. And yet, this does raise a question. If you're saying that everybody who crosses the border illegally - they get put in the system. They have an eventual court date, but they're going to be released into the country. Is there a downside to that message getting back to Central America? - that anybody who comes up to the United States will check in with a border patrol officer and then be released into the country.
CASTRO: I see the two as unrelated. If people could find safety and opportunity in their home country, they would stay in their home country. So what we need to do if we want a long-term solution to this is we need to get smart. We need to invest in a 21st century Marshall Plan for Honduras, for El Salvador, for Guatemala.
I don't think that there's much of anything else that is going to impact the numbers of people coming other than whether people can find safety and opportunity in their home country.
INSKEEP: Is it OK with you if much larger numbers of people came? - because the immigration system changes and people realize they can find shelter in the United States.
CASTRO: No, I would prefer that they are able to find safety and opportunity in their home country.
INSKEEP: You have said you want to strengthen family reunification, meaning that if one person is here, they have an easier time getting relations to come. President Trump, the other day, called for contracting family reunification and allowing more people in on a merit-based system. Are you moving in the opposite direction as the president on this?
CASTRO: I disagree with the president on this. First of all, I asked folks to think about what we consider a skilled job today. Do you think that you could go and spend 10 hours picking a crop in the fields of California? Do you think that you could spend 10 hours in 102 degree - underneath the blaring sun, on a roof in Texas? That is skilled labor. But this merit system that the president has set up says that only certain people have merit.
My grandmother came over here when she was 7 years old with her little sister, in 1922, from Mexico with nothing. And they came over because their parents had died. I don't know that she ever would have made it in if we use the rules that this president wants to use. And yet, two generations later, one of her grandsons is a congressman and the other is a candidate for president of the United States.
INSKEEP: Do you think that Democrats are further left on immigration than they were five years ago, 10 years ago?
CASTRO: Well, I don't know, but I do think that my proposal has gotten a great reception out there among people who appreciate a different way to fix our broken immigration system because they see that what we get out of Trump is just this reactionary kind of macho talk that doesn't really get you anything.
INSKEEP: But here's why I ask. You've made proposals that Democratic officials have voted the other way on in the past. There was a time when Democrats voted for a lot more border security. A lot of Democrats voted for the fence - the hundreds of miles of fence - are the candidates of your party - are you specifically moving further left than Democrats, as an electorate, really are?
CASTRO: I see myself as on the right path - the correct path to fix our system. And look. It's true that there have been bad policies that have come out of each party. I do think, generally, the Democrats have been a lot better on this issue of immigration, but they have made mistakes too. And, you know, I don't care first about what the party approach is. What I care about is getting this right for human beings.
INSKEEP: Let me ask a question about the way that you would govern if you were addressing super divisive issues like immigration or we could mention abortion. We could mention climate change. We could mention a lot of things. In this environment, with the country so divided, is it even worth reaching out to the other side?
CASTRO: I think it's always worth reaching out to the other side.
INSKEEP: Well, it's always worth trying. But in practical terms, do you think you would actually make progress...
CASTRO: Well, I mean, we're going to try. I think you always have to try. And I came up, originally, through local government in a nonpartisan context. So I had to knock on the doors of people that were conservative. They were Republican. They didn't agree with me, so I'm used to that.
At the same time, I watched Mitch McConnell, over the eight years that President Obama was in office, do everything that he could to try and stop any kind of successes for President Obama. And so I'm not naive. If the choice is between universal health care or fixing our broken immigration system or upholding a 60-vote filibuster rule that is nowhere in the Constitution, I'm going to choose actually making progress for the American people.
INSKEEP: Meaning that although it wouldn't be your choice - it would be up to the Senate - you would support eliminating the filibuster if you felt that that's the way you would get your program through Congress.
CASTRO: I would. I do believe that being in public office is all about making choices. And if I'm president, I would steer this nation in the direction where we embrace progressive values.
INSKEEP: Secretary Castro, thanks so much.
CASTRO: Thanks a lot for having me.
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