MIAMI — Though fast becoming a national spokesman for immigration reform, when Julián Castro addressed activists, their benefactors and so-called DREAMers here Thursday night, he made a plea to fix a broken system as the mayor of a city where undocumented immigrants exist in the shadows.
“Unlike some folks in D.C., I don’t have the luxury of sitting 2,000 miles away, far away from the problem and railing against it,” Castro said. “My colleagues and I in cities across the country have to deal with the practical consequences of our broken immigration system.”
He delivered the keynote address to the 17th annual Americans for Immigrant Justice dinner. The event was dubbed “Dare to Dream.”
Known as “AI Justice,” the law firm works with immigrants’ legal issues and develops policy recommendations in Washington. The dinner served as a fundraiser.
Attendees included people like Piero Paolo Caceres Barrientos, and Monica Lazaro, both 20-year-old DREAMers — undocumented young people who were brought to the U.S. and remained here, who are SEeking to stay in this country legally.
Their stories put a face on the debate over how to reform immigration policy. Lazaro’s father, who owned a shop in Honduras, brought her here, along with her younger brother in 2002, as they fled from crime in their country.
She’s an honors student at Miami Dade College but can’t get a driver’s license.
Undocumented immigrants in San Antonio and elsewhere “live, struggle and suffer in the shadows,” Castro said.
Their status relegates them to the margins of society, fraying and corroding families, he said. Such people are afraid to report crimes because they fear being arrested themselves; they’re scared to send their children to school and pull them out if they think an immigration crackdown is imminent, Castro said.
“And that keeps San Antonio from out-educating and out-competing communities across the world,” he said. “As someone who believes … that brainpower is the new currency of success, … I know that we can’t afford for any of these young people to take a break from education, health care or from fully participating in our society.”
Castro called for further strengthening border security through the use of technology and streamlining the legal immigration process to make it easier for law-abiding companies to hire employees.
“And we know we must create a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country,” he said.
A bipartisan group of senators, which includes Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is working on a reform bill, though its chance for success remains uncertain.
Many House Republicans fall within two camps, said Aubrey Jewett, a political scientist at the University of Central Florida. Some support legalizing the immigrants here illegally for work purposes but not a path to citizenship.
Others don’t support citizenship or even legalization, he said, because they don’t want to reward illegal behavior.
Still others, such as Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., who received an award at the dinner for her immigration advocacy, are pushing for what they consider common-sense reform.
The senators’ proposed legislation, which could be made public soon, may be enough to garner support from house Democrats. Rubio, a Cuban-American Republican from Florida, has surprised some with his willingness to consider a path to citizenship.
It’s caused some blowback from the right, Jewett said, spurring talk of a commission that would have to sign off on the border being secure before a path to citizenship could be taken.
That’s not a particularly viable proposal for Republican strategist Lionel Sosa, a San Antonian who has worked on eight presidential campaigns. There’s no way to actually define “secure,” he said.
Supporting immigration reform is a necessity for Republicans.
“The selfish reason is, we don’t want that on the agenda for the next election,” Sosa said. “We want it off the table.”
It’s physically and financially impossible to deport the estimated 11 million people here illegally, he said.
“And once we make them legal, we have to have a path to citizenship because there’s no way that this country is ever going to create a permanent underclass of people,” he added.
That’s something that has happened in American history, Castro said during his speech.
“Whether it was Plessy vs. Ferguson and the idea that separate could ever be equal, or the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, we can’t have a permanent class of second-class citizens, never mind a permanent class of noncitizens,” he said. “So while some are tempted to just split the difference and impose an in-between solution, I believe that it’s imperative that we not codify a permanent underclass in the United States of America.”
Castro said he believes the U.S. is on the “cusp of real progress,” but at the same time acknowledged “there are still difficult fights ahead.”
His position likely will continue to strengthen his Democratic credentials — bolstered by his quick national ascension leading up to and following his keynote address at the 2012 Democratic National Convention.
Talking about immigration is a political calculation that will keep Castro in the national conscience — something he can talk about, post-presidential election, on national news shows. But it also may strain his efforts to lead at home.
There’s a clear sense the nonpartisan City Council has a more divided personality now, perhaps somewhat driven by Castro’s participation in Democratic politics. The conservative minority on the council also appears to have recalibrated its practice in response to the mayor’s partisan politicking.
“He’s on a national platform, and if he wants to go talk, as long as the taxpayers aren’t paying for him, and as long as they allow him to be in that role and spend time doing that, it’s between him and them,” conservative District 10 Councilman Carlton Soules said.
Castro’s trip was funded by Americans for Immigrant Justice. He rarely uses city funds on travel — even when journeying specifically on city business.
If Soules is bothered by Castro’s busy out-of-town schedule, he doesn’t show it.
“The more he’s out of town, the more he doesn’t mess with the stuff I want to mess with,” Soules joked. “It works for me.”
Written by Josh Baughstaff; [email protected]