Black and Hispanic Voters Should Take a Closer Look at Julián Castro

So far, the Democratic candidates presumed to be in the best position to challenge Joe Biden’s polling lead among black and brown voters have been senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker. Both are black and have spent significant energy courting voters in South Carolina; the Democratic electorate in the state was 60 percent black in 2016, and its primary is viewed as an early bellwether for both of their odds. Neither candidate seems to be generating much interest there yet. But during Wednesday’s Democratic presidential debate, Julián Castro made a compelling argument for why he too deserves to be in that conversation. Though he has consistently polled below 2 percent, the former-secretary of Housing and Urban Development distinguished himself by submitting the field’s most specific policy proposals aimed at the two issues most closely associated with black and Hispanic voters: policing and immigration, respectively.

Castro’s policing platform is the only one of its kind among the 20 candidates debating this week. (Those with comparable proposals have cast a wider net, focusing on criminal-justice reform more broadly.) Among its provisions: establishing standards whereby officers are compelled to intervene if they see their colleagues using excessive force; working with Congress to make laws that lower the burden of prosecution for police misconduct; and collecting disaggregated data on all police detentions, stops, frisks, searches, summonses, and arrests to track for racial bias. The federal government’s ability to implement such changes is limited, given their local nature, and any congressional action would require a degree of cooperation that Mitch McConnell has proven himself stubbornly uninterested in. Castro hopes to narrow these gaps by leveraging financial incentives — determining grant eligibility and withholding federal funding according to jurisdictions’ willingness to cooperate.

Eric Levitz has noted, Castro’s plan would essentially reinstate pre-9/11 enforcement standards: Making undocumented immigration a civil infraction rather than a criminal one; shifting Customs and Border Enforcement agents’ focus from internal enforcement to border policing; only detaining undocumented immigrants if the government has good reason to suspect they are a public-safety threat; and removing immigration courts from the Justice Department’s purview, presumably to limit the risk of an attorney general like Jeff Sessions setting the standards deployed therein.

Castro framed these policies on Wednesday by attacking Representative Beto O’Rourke, his fellow Texan and the other candidate most likely to make immigration a central issue — resulting in one of the debate’s few truly combative passages. Castro’s point of contrast was the two men’s disagreement over Section 1325 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which criminalizes unlawful entry into the U.S. and serves as pretext for the Trump administration’s child separations: Castro supports repealing it; O’Rourke does not. (Castro’s position seems to have evolved on this issue from his past support for the Obama administration’s crackdowns on people crossing the border illegally.)

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