Julián Castro Wants to Hold Police Accountable

In an interview, the presidential hopeful outlines ambitious plans for reforming immigration and policing.

Loren Elliott / Reuters

Julián Castro, the former secretary of housing and urban development under President Barack Obama and former mayor of San Antonio, has put forth perhaps the most ambitious immigration and police-reform plans in the Democratic primary.

A second-generation immigrant who is widely credited with fostering an economic revival in San Antonio, Castro hopes that his progressive policy record and compelling personal story will set him apart from a large (and growing) Democratic presidential-primary field. I recently spoke with Castro about his immigration and policing plans, what Democrats should do about the Supreme Court, and whether he thinks Donald Trump has committed impeachable offenses, among other subjects.

In our exchange, Castro called for a federal database of police shootings, said that the post-9/11 shift toward treating illegal entry into the United States as a crime has “led to so many of the problems we see today,” and argued that Trump should be impeached, despite opinion polls showing that a majority of the public has yet to support that move.

A transcript of our conversation follows, edited for length and clarity.

You’ve put forth an aggressive plan for eliminating racial discrimination in policing that, among other things, states that it will “establish responsibility and accountability for officers to intervene if they witness a colleague utilizing excessive force or inappropriate conduct.” What does that mean, exactly? Are you talking about a federal law or regulation that would penalize local police officers who ignore misconduct by their colleagues?

Yeah. I’m talking about using both the carrot and the stick incentives where there are grant programs, and also legislation to ensure that if one officer witnesses another officer engaging in misconduct, that that officer—the witness—is compelled to actually report that. Because too often, those types of things go unreported.

Your plan would also require police officers to “identify themselves, issue a verbal warning, and give the suspect a reasonable amount of time before the use of force, and to only use deadly force as a last resort.” Would there be any exceptions to that, and are you concerned that that kind of approach would put the lives of police officers in danger?

Yeah, I believe that’s the best approach. I saw research not too long ago that demonstrated that police departments across the country that institute the most restrictive policies in terms of when an officer should use lethal force, both still have good rates of officer safety compared to other departments—but also have lower incidents of innocent civilians being harmed.

The Justice Department performs oversight over local police to ensure that they comply with the Constitution. But some of what you’re talking about is addressing local police policy. Is it constitutional for the federal government to dictate policy for law enforcement at that level?

The question is whether it’s constitutional for the federal government to do that. Well, the way that I approach it is, we will do everything we can under the Constitution to hold police departments and officers accountable. And where we need to use incentives [through] our federal grant process, we can use that.

So this is something that I didn’t see in the plan, but I might have missed it: Would you establish a federal database to track police-involved shootings?

You’re right—what we talked about in the plan is the decertification of officers. But I would like to see a database of officer-involved shootings, because we don’t have a database right now.

Do you think that’s important?

Of course, sure. And I don’t believe the public should have to rely on the efforts of journalists across the country, although those are noble efforts. There should be a comprehensive federal database of officer-involved shootings, of use of excessive force, and also, as I said in that plan, the decertification of police officers.

Your immigration plan would make entering the United States illegally a civil infraction. Why?

No. 1, I believe that’s more effective than what we’re doing now. What we’re doing now is a total disaster. It’s ineffective and it’s inhumane. From 1929 to about 2004, we actually used to treat someone crossing the border as a civil violation, not a criminal one. We started treating it as a criminal violation post-9/11—that’s what’s led to so many of the problems we see today. A huge backlog of immigration cases, incarceration of people, the separation of little children from their mothers. So I would actually treat it as a civil violation and create an independent immigration judiciary, and add more judges and support staff to be able to get people seeking asylum, or who are otherwise in that immigration judicial process, an answer, so people aren’t waiting in limbo for years.

When you say that criminalizing illegal entry hasn’t been effective, what do you mean by “effective”? Effective in doing what?

I think any type of way that you want to analyze that. Let’s take, for instance, Trump’s standard—his administration told us about a year ago that they’d crack down on these migrants and were cruel enough to separate these kids from their parents, that that would deter more families from coming. And the opposite has happened. More families are coming now than were coming when he instituted that policy of family separation.

I believe that treating this as a civil violation still holds people accountable, and it’ll be more effective than what we have now. It clearly hasn’t been effective. We’ve seen more people coming, and in the name of the people of the United States, migrant families have been treated very inhumanely. Which is a stain on all of us, as a country.

Does the United States need an internal immigration agency like ICE as opposed to one that guards the borders, and if so, what should it look like, and what should its priorities be?

Yeah, of course we’re always gonna have enforcement. There’s gonna be enforcement not only at the border, but also beyond the northern, southern border, and the ports. But I don’t believe it should look like ICE.

In my plan, I call for breaking up ICE and returning its enforcement functions to the Department of Justice. I’ve also called for specific changes for how enforcement in the interior would be done. For instance, right now they have the authority to, within a 100-mile radius of the border—you know, 100 miles that stretch from any point on the border—to do interior checks and enforcement, and I believe that power has been abused. And so I’ve called for curtailing that significantly.

When you say their power has been abused, what do you mean by that? Do you have examples of what you’d describe as abuses of power by ICE?

Sure—getting onto Greyhound buses and profiling people who they think look like immigrants. Harassing folks because they look a certain way. I completely disagree with that.

So you’ve been an Obama-administration official, you were the mayor of a blue city in a red state, and you’re a second-generation immigrant at a time when that issue is at the center of the American political conversation. So why do you think that you have yet to gain a lot of traction in the early polls?

We haven’t had an opportunity yet to reach a larger audience. That’s the purpose of these debates that are coming up during July, the ones beyond that, and what I’ve seen is steadily increasing support in my polling. Our fundraising has accelerated in the second quarter versus the first.

I was starting this campaign from scratch, I hadn’t run for president before, I hadn’t run for Senate, didn’t have this huge email list, which is so crucial to fundraising these days. So I’ve built this up from scratch, and now I’m getting stronger and stronger in this campaign. More people are coming to our events in Iowa and New Hampshire and the early states. We’re starting to get more media attention.

We still have about 32 weeks to go until the Iowa caucus and haven’t had a single debate yet. It’s very premature in a 23-candidate field to assess whether someone’s gonna prevail on February 3 in the Iowa caucus.

Speaking of the large field, some people have argued that candidates such as you who have a strong background in the state where they’re from should have run for Senate rather than run for president first. Did you consider that, and what made you decide to run for president instead?

I have a strong, positive vision for the future of our country. That’s where my experience is at, at the federal level as a federal executive, which the president is. So my experience directly matches the office that I’m seeking.

Democrats have, over the past few years, especially after the 2016 election, been accused of relying too heavily on what is often referred to as “identity politics.” How would you respond to that critique?

Well, that’s in the eye of the beholder. Identity politics can be sliced and diced in a million different ways. I focus on telling the truth and painting a vision of what the country can become in the future if we make the right investments together in things like health care, and education, and jobs and opportunity.

But I don’t shy away from addressing the fact that some people in different contexts are treated differently in this country. All of that goes together as far as I’m concerned. I don’t believe we need to choose between addressing economic issues and addressing issues of social or racial justice.

Speaking of economic issues, what would you say to someone who says, “You know, I’m not a huge fan of Trump, but the economy’s really strong, and he’s doing a really good job with that—so why should I vote for someone else?”

The economy’s really strong in spite of Donald Trump, not because of him. Donald Trump is like the guy who picked up the ball at the opponent’s two-yard line, because Barack Obama carried it from the two-yard line of the home team to the opponent’s two-yard line.

When Barack Obama became president, the country was losing several hundred thousand jobs a month. And we had the longest stretch of positive economic growth that this country has ever seen. So this president inherited tremendous forward momentum when it comes to the economy, and it’s not due to him that this country is doing well. In many ways, it’s in spite of him.

So you support Medicare for All, but there’s some confusion among the public about what exactly that entails. So I guess my question is, does that mean you support eliminating private insurance, or do you support allowing people to buy into Medicare?

I support everybody who wants Medicare to get Medicare, and if somebody has private insurance that they want to hold on to, I believe that’s fine as well. What I don’t believe: that anybody in our country should go without health care just because they’re poor or don’t have resources. So I agree with those who have called for major reform in our system.

Do you support eliminating the filibuster?

Yeah. If the choice comes down to universal health care or adhering to a Senate rule that is not in the Constitution and has already been violated many times, then I’m going to choose improving the lives of millions of Americans by getting a universal health-care bill.

The other great obstacle to any progressive legislation, if Donald Trump is defeated in 2020, is the Supreme Court. Do you support any changes to the Court, such as expanding the size limit, or instituting term limits, or anything like that?

I’m intrigued by the idea of term limits. I don’t agree with expanding the size of it, because, you know … we could expect Democrats to increase the size of it to 11 in 2022, and the Republicans will come back and increase the size of it in 2032. You know, I think the more thoughtful approach would be to consider whether there should be term limits. I’m open to that.

Has Donald Trump committed impeachable offenses, and if so, what are they?

He has. As the Mueller report pointed out, there were 10 different instances where he either obstructed justice or tried to obstruct justice. And I’ve called for Congress to begin impeachment proceedings.

The question for Congress and for the American people is, Will there be any accountability here? Or is this the new normal that we want from the United States president? I don’t think this should be the new normal.

So do you think the House should impeach Trump despite the fact that, though the public seems to think he’s committed crimes, they are at the moment opposing impeachment?

Yeah, I don’t believe we should make our decisions based solely on public-opinion polls. When somebody has committed these kinds of acts … opinion polls change all the time. Someone asked me recently about the way that public-opinion polls changed as the impeachment process unfolded with President Nixon.

If the American public has the opportunity in full to digest the actual findings and the content of the Mueller report, and they have testimony on that, I’m confident that more Americans will understand the gravity of the offenses, and why they’re impeachable.

The Great Recession annihilated much of the wealth accumulated by middle- and working-class homeowners, particularly black people and Latinos. And in many ways, those communities still haven’t recovered—there was an article in USA Today about seniors being taken advantage of by private lenders. What can the next president do to address this problem?

Make big investments in housing affordability and reform our laws in regard to our approach to keeping people in their homes. We can invest in the FHA, which has been a tremendous asset for creating homeownership, particularly for African American and Latino families over the last few decades.

And we can learn the lessons in terms of the crisis, the housing crisis a decade or so ago—learn the lessons of the past, and not back off from the kind of regulation that’s gonna help ensure that those kinds of thing never happen again.

The Department of Justice under the Obama administration levied some pretty heavy fines on banks that engaged in forms of discrimination. Do you think they should have been more aggressive on the criminal side?

For which acts are you asking about?

Should the Obama Department of Justice have pursued more criminal cases against banks that broke the law, or do you think its pursuit of fines on the basis of their conduct was sufficient?

I think going forward, they could do more—that a future administration could be more stringent, even tougher on them. And Americans understand that nobody should be—just as organizations shouldn’t be immune to or outside of the law—nobody should be outside of or immune from punishment. So I do think if we had this same incident happen again, there would be executives charged.