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Julián Castro, former Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary and San Antonio Mayor, announces his candidacy for president at Plaza Guadalupe in San Antonio, Texas, on January 12, 2019. | Edward A. Ornelas/Getty Images
Why Julián Castro wants to decriminalize migration, admit climate refugees, reimagine our relationship with the homeless, and protect animals.
“The circle of altruism has broadened from the family and tribe to the nation and race, and we are beginning to recognize that our obligations extend to all human beings,” wrote philosopher Peter Singer in his classic 1981 book, The Expanding Circle. “The process should not stop there.”
In presidential politics, though, it usually does. Presidential campaigns tend to revolve around the citizens of the nation-state, and even then, only some of them. In American politics, in particular, there’s been a backslide in recent years, with Trumpist conservatives embracing a narrower nationalism, and “globalist” emerging as an epithet.
Quietly and radically, Democratic presidential aspirant Julián Castro is building the beginning of an alternative vision. Laced through his policy agenda is a consistent effort to expand the moral circle: to decriminalize the movements of undocumented immigrants, to involve the homeless in housing policy, to establish American obligations to those displaced by climate change, to protect animals from human cruelty.
There’s been much talk of the Democratic Party’s move to the economic left in the 2020 campaign, but less notice given to Castro’s quietly radical, and morally inspiring, project. In this podcast conversation, he explains the underlying philosophy of his vision, and details some of the policies that compose it. We discuss whether America can absorb migration on the scale he envisions, the anxieties and aspirations behind his unusual animal protection agenda, and how his tenure as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development redefined his understanding of homelessness.
Toward the end of our conversation, I asked him if this wasn’t all a step too far, if he didn’t see the point of those who counsel Democrats to play it safe in order to maximize their chance of ejecting Trump from office in 2020. This broader moral vision, he replied, “is not just trying to backfill the negative. It gives people a positive purpose that they can reach for. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
You can listen to our entire conversation by subscribing to The Ezra Klein Show wherever you get your podcasts. A transcript, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.
As I’ve been watching your policies roll out, the connecting thread seems to be that we need to expand the circle of people — and even the circle of creatures — that we have moral commitments to. You want to decriminalize unauthorized border crossing. You want to create a class of climate refugees who can ask America for asylum. You want the homeless to be directly involved in and consulted on housing policy. You want to extend more protections to animals. Is this a campaign about expanding our moral circle?
It is about that, in part. And you know, it’s interesting, you’re the first one to ask me that question. From the beginning, I have built this campaign around shining a light on the most vulnerable communities. My first visit after I announced was to San Juan, Puerto Rico, to shine a light on the failure of the Trump administration to take care of the people of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. You mentioned climate refugees. We don’t often connect immigration and the climate crisis, but up to 200 million people by the year 2050 are going to have to move from their homeland because of climate change.
In our politics for the last four decades, we have focused a lot in our rhetoric on the middle class. But somewhere along the way, we forgot about the poor. We forgot about the most vulnerable. You don’t hear politicians speak about the poor and the most vulnerable anymore. I want to do that in this campaign.
There tends to be a very specific definition of “we” in American politics. Maybe we don’t talk about the most vulnerable enough. But, even when politicians talk about the most vulnerable, what they mean is the most vulnerable who are already part of America.
What’s been striking to me about some of the policies you’ve put out is that it’s not just about the poor versus the middle class, but it’s also about expanding the we. Future climate refugees or undocumented immigrants are not usually thought of as part of our we. They are not often seen as people we should have some kind of moral relationship with. So, that effort to expand the we beyond the norm of who is considered vulnerable in America to the vulnerable outside of America — or even outside of the human community — feels radical and new to me. I’m curious where that commitment is coming from or if you even see the commitment in that way.
You’re right that there are a lot of people who we as Americans, certainly politicians, don’t draw within the circle of we. At the same time, when we talk about undocumented immigrants, for example, they’ve been a part of our economy, our culture, our way of life, our neighborhoods for generations. We talk about protecting animals. It’s amazing today that some of the strongest response that you get from people on an issue is with regard to how we treat animals. Yet, that’s hardly ever talked about in our politics at the federal level.
So, in that sense, we’re trying to expand the notion of we. But we’re also looking inward and pointing out that they have been a part of it the whole time. They’ve been a part of creating the nation and the identity of who “we” are. Perhaps we just haven’t given them credit for that or recognized them — even though they have been helping to propel this community forward. Now it’s time to recognize them as well as everybody else.
Why we should be letting in many more immigrants and refugees
Let’s go through a few of these policies, beginning with immigration, where I think you’ve had a real shaping effect on the Democratic primary. You’ve argued for repealing section 1325 of the federal immigration code, which makes unauthorized border crossing a criminal offense. The core of that idea seems to not just be about the criminal code, but about who unauthorized immigrants are and how we should think about them. So, before we get into the policy itself, on the human level, how should we think about unauthorized immigrants? How should we see their relationship to us?
As completely consistent with the tradition of this country as a country of people aspiring for a better life. As consistent with our notion of people who are ready to work hard to provide for their families. I see undocumented immigrants as being a part of the American story for generations, including this generation. I see them as integral to building a strong future for the country.
I always talk about the fact that, in many ways, we need undocumented immigrants, whether we want to admit it or not. Economically, they ensure that the Social Security trust fund is strong and solvent because they are a young, healthy, vibrant workforce at a time where we had the lowest birth rate in 32 years last year. Immigration is one way to make sure that all of us can win.
If there is so much benefit from undocumented immigrants, then what’s the case for us as a country turning them away? Why shouldn’t anyone who can prove they’re not a danger to the United States be able to come here to work?
Of course, there’s a limit to what any country can do. I’m not calling for no limits. What I am saying is that the volume of requests to enter this country through refugee applications, asylum applications, and the number of undocumented immigrants into the country are not a danger to this country. We’ve seen times in the United States when we’ve handled a greater volume of people coming here to try and find a better life for their families. And we’ve seen other nations around the world that are doing more than the United States.
So it’s about tailoring an immigration program that meets the needs of the United States and also recognizes the value of having hardworking people who are going to do right for their families and their communities if they have the chance of being here and eventually becoming an American.
Something that has struck me about President Trump’s immigration policy is that during the 2016 campaign, he framed it as about undocumented immigrants. But, since becoming president, it has become clearer and clearer that it was a policy about cutting legal immigration.
So much of the Democratic response to Trump’s policies have been about enforcement — about changing ICE, or repealing section 1325. But there’s not really been as much of an argument from Democrats about, say, boosting legal immigration. If it is true that immigrants are such a boon to America, then maybe we should have many more of them. Maybe the counter to Trump is that immigration makes America strong, and, as such, we should more fully take advantage of that tremendous appeal we have to people all over the world who want to be here. I’m curious how you think about this legal immigration side of things.
You’re right that we need to fix our broken legal immigration system. In the People First Immigration plan that I put out in early April, we go through a whole section on how we’re going to fix our broken legal immigration system.
I disagree with the Trump administration’s push to only let in certain types of people who have already made it. I called in my plan, for instance, for identifying 4.4 million family members of people who are already here that I would expedite citizenship. I believe that more students who come here to study should be able to stay here, start a business, contribute to a growing job sector. But this is a case where a lot of the focus of the media and the campaigns has been on the border and on undocumented immigration in part because that’s where a lot of the cruelty of this president has been, even as he has made it more difficult for people to go through the legal immigration system.
I want to move to climate. The World Bank estimates that about 140 million people will be displaced by climate change by 2050. Other estimates are even higher. That’s a big refugee population. Tell me about your idea for making a category of climate refugees — of people who are displaced by climate change.
I believe that we need to lead again on climate change. I laid out a plan on how we’re going to do that, beginning with getting back into the Paris climate agreement, and going beyond that by making investments to net zero carbon emissions in the United States by 2045 and lead so that at latest the world gets there by 2050.
Part of our leadership is recognizing that people around the world are grappling with the effects of climate change already. Many of them are being displaced. So, it makes sense that as we take the mantle of leadership on climate, we should also take in refugees from around the world who have been impacted by climate change. I believe that these will be hardworking people who will love this country and be committed to making it better.
Right now, as you know, the statutory cap of how many refugees we can accept in a given year is about 110,000. At the height of the Obama administration we were at about 70,000. We went down to just over 30,000 in the Trump administration, and we’re going lower this year. I believe we need to get that number back up, including with a category for climate refugees. I think that will send a strong signal to the rest of the world that the United States is doing its part, recognizing the impact that climate change has already having. And, it’s gonna provide great opportunity to take in people that will make our country even stronger.
I appreciate you bringing in the Obama numbers there. As you say, the cap at the height of the Obama years was 110,000 and they didn’t even achieve that. Now you’re talking about accepting refugees from a pool that, over time, could be as large as 140 million people. That’s a big gap.
You were part of the Obama administration. What do you think was the constraint on accepting refugees, and how as president would you think about changing it?
I think that how we deal with these issues in the United States, for better or worse, is like a pendulum. On the issue of immigration, President Trump has taken things so far in the direction of cruelty and otherizing that I believe that the next few years are going to provide an opportunity to go in the other direction, including to exercise the authority that we have under the existing statute to get to that 110,000 person cap on refugees. Then we can look at going beyond it.
When you think about how many refugees countries like Germany and others have taken — recognizing that this process has come with political tensions — I just believe there’s much more the United States can do to provide refuge for people who need it around the world.
If we’re going to move beyond that 110,000 in a large scale way, then I think people are going to have to see letting in refugees as something that has value to us. So, if you are a president, how would you try to convince the American people that they should expand the “we” here?
I would talk to them about places like the Twin Cities where the Hmong community has help those twin cities prosper. I would talk to them about places like Houston in my home state of Texas where refugees from around the world have built up one of the most diverse and successful communities in the United States.
I believe that persuading Americans on a policy like this really starts with the stories of communities that have prospered because of refugees. Entrepreneurialism, dedication to family, faith, military service, all of those things that we consider bedrock of a strong America — the refugee community represents those in spades. We can tell that story and show it over and over and over. It’s an appeal to self interest.
One thing people legitimately worry about is that we don’t have the social solidarity to take in either refugees or immigrants at the levels we’re talking about here. But I come from Orange County, California, which has a very heavy immigration immigrant population. The Twin Cities is another great example.
What do you think is the difference between the places that have been able to thrive with tremendously high levels of immigration and refugees, and the places who don’t feel that kind of migration is consistent with the solidarity and cultures that they have come to rely on?
Sometimes it just takes time. I often analogize this to “reality-testing” for people that have ever had a phobia. If you’re afraid of going in an elevator, for instance, a psychiatrist will introduce you to the elevator little by little. The first time, you’ll walk into the elevator, but the doors won’t close. You’ll just be there for a minute and then walk out. The next time you’ll walk in and the doors will close for 30 seconds and that’s it. Then you work your way up to the doors actually closing and you press the button and you ride it up to the top of the building and then ride it back down. Eventually, you’ve conquered your fear.
There needs to be an opportunity in communities for people to reality-test across different cultures. That’s why our civic institutions — whether it’s our schools, our libraries, our arts organizations, even our mass transit — should be places where people of different backgrounds are able to come together and get to know each other. If you wanted to come up with a game plan for trying to ensure that you had a smoother acceptance of people who are different, that’s what I would focus on.
How do you think about bringing along people who feel a sense of loss as a country changes? People who look at the way America is changing, the way power is shifting, and they just feel it’s not the America that they grew up in. I think there’s can be a tendency on left to say, “you’re racist” or “you’re behind” or “you’re backwards” or “you’re deplorable.” I’m curious how you think these people should be treated? Because I think they would hear your metaphor of “reality-testing” and find it dismissive of their views and the America they’re trying to preserve.
What is the relationship your administration would have with that part of the country?
I came up through local politics, which meant knocking on doors and talking to folks that were conservative and did not agree with me. So, I completely understand why somebody, when they see the demographics of the country changing, would begin to ask, “what does this mean for me?” and “what does it mean for the culture that I grew up with?”
I completely understand that. And you know what, now speaking as, as a Latino who grew up in this country, I think the people that they’re concerned about understand that too. What I would say is that when you start talking to these immigrants they love this country. They love the idea of it. They’re proud to be a part of it. They want to continue so much of it.
All along the way, this country has been created by people from different places. There have always been the same types of tensions that we feel right now. There were the same types of concerns about whether the Germans would negatively change who we are as a country. There was the Chinese Exclusion Act. There was Operation Wetback. But, every time, the cooler heads and the better angels have prevailed, and because of that, the country was able to get stronger. And this will happen in the future.
Why the homeless should have a direct voice in policymaking
You have a deep background in housing policy, and I believe you’re one of only two candidates in the presidential race right now to have a commitment to end chronic homelessness. Something that struck me in your plan is that you say you’ll ensure that individuals who are impacted by homelessness have a meaningful and a direct hand in creating policies to address homelessness.
The homeless are often excluded from political decision-making on the implicit grounds that if they were good decision-makers, they wouldn’t be homeless. That because they’re asking for something, they don’t deserve full representation. What in that calculus is wrong?
Too often, the perception of the homeless is just wrong. Most people, when they think of somebody who’s homeless, think of a man when, in fact, families are one of the fastest growing populations of homeless. Too many people think of somebody who’s homeless as somebody who is an alcoholic, who is mentally ill, who is lazy. They associate something negative with them.
It’s true that there are a number of people who are homeless who do have an addiction issue or a mental health issue. But when I was housing secretary, I met a lot of people who, until just a year before I met them, had been working in the job market with a place to live. Then something happened — whether as part of the housing crisis or a crisis in their own life and they found themselves homeless.
There are also a lot of invisible homeless people that aren’t necessarily sleeping on the streets, but are doubling up with a relative because they don’t have their own place or they’re sleeping in their car or they’re in a shelter. So the notion of who is homeless needs to change.
That’s one of the biggest problems I have with the Trump administration and HUD right now. I think they have this notion that if you’re poor, if you’re homeless, that there’s something wrong with you, which I completely disagree with.
I imagine that, housing secretary, you really saw a difference between the communities that were engaging the homeless in solving these problems, and the communities that were offering more top down, technocratic processes.
Can you tell me a bit about what you saw there? What is different when you give the homeless a direct hand in creating policies to address homelessness versus when you have just policy makers trying to figure out the problem and crafting the solutions themselves?
Coming up through local government, I found that the policies you design are a lot stronger if you understand practical realities of situations from people who are in them.
I’ll give you a small example. When we were designing programs to address homelessness, people who were homeless talked about was the fact that they didn’t have anywhere where somebody could communicate with them about a potential opportunity. Or, let’s say that they had their GED, or even a college degree, and they had gone to apply for a job. One challenge was that they no longer had clothes that were presentable to go and interview with. Another was they didn’t have a place, an email or a physical address where somebody could mail them something. What had broken down was the ability to actually make yourself a second chance.
If you are not in that situation, you can’t fully understand it. That’s why it’s even more important that you reach out to the people who are living it.
One of the other pieces of this is that it can be hard for the homeless to participate because their existence itself is almost rendered illegal. You write in your plan that you want to decriminalize homelessness and get rid of laws that discriminate against the homeless. I think a lot of people may not think that we do criminalize homelessness, or realize what a law that discriminates against them would be. So can you give a couple of examples of the sort of laws you’re looking to repeal there?
Laws that say, for instance, that people can’t stay in public spaces longer than a certain number of hours have the effect of criminalizing people who are homeless, especially in communities where in winter the shelters get full.
You take a city like Los Angeles or San Francisco or New York, and there’s a growing level of unsheltered homelessness. So there’s a tension that is created there where people in the city see homeless in public parks or on sidewalks or under a bridge. And there’s a community reaction to that. How the community manages that reaction — whether it works toward actually providing better opportunity for people who are homeless instead of just cracking down and criminalizing them — is the true test of a community.
I’m glad you brought that up. I grew up outside LA and I work in San Francisco, and there’s real fury in these communities about the prevalence of unsheltered homelessness. But, then, even if you can begin to get the funds to build shelters, to build homes, to create more housing, a lot of people don’t want those shelters in their backyards.
Right now, in LA, they’re going through this effort to try to place shelters and it’s an endless game of whack-a-mole of communities organizing to stop it from being built. Their concern is that it could lead to people who are using more drugs in their neighborhood or could lead to their property values being hurt. Even if they aren’t right, their concern is at least reasonable. So how do you manage that tension? What are the reasonable asks of a community on this question?
Look, who wouldn’t be concerned about what’s happening in the area around them? That’s natural. At the same time, I think that there is a boogeyman created about people who are homeless, and the best communities are those communities that work to break down those stereotypes.
You mentioned LA. To their credit, the voters of Los Angeles County supported measure HHH a couple of years ago, which was a ballot initiative that would provide tax revenue to invest in more housing opportunity for people who are homelessness. The challenge has been that they have not been able to allocate as many of those resources in part, as I understand it, because they’re having problems deploying them.
But we’ve seen communities that are still thriving once they get affordable housing or a shelter. I would lift up those examples from across the country and use them to show people in other places that this can be done successfully. I think at the federal level, we need to link some federal funds to the willingness of local communities to improve their land use approach so we can develop more affordable housing where it’s needed.
At the end of the day, just because you’re homeless, just because you’re poor, doesn’t mean that you’re not a human being. You are a human being and it’s not only people that own property in this country or people of means that count. Everybody counts. So, the government there has a responsibility to meet the needs of people who don’t have much.
Taking the first step to make animals a part of our moral circle
You’re the only candidate to my knowledge with an animal welfare plan. What led you to prioritize that?
Of all the policies we’ve released, this one has been the one most influenced by me. It wasn’t on the radar screen of a policy team at all, but I wanted to do it.
I started working on the issue of animal welfare when I was a city councilman in San Antonio in 2004. At that time, San Antonio had a rate of euthanizing cats and dogs at a rate wildly out of proportion for the size of the city. That pointed to a big cultural issue in San Antonio of people not caring enough for the safety and welfare of animals. So I started working on it.
When I became mayor in 2009, we were able to get the live release rate — the percentage of cats and dogs that come into the city’s animal shelter — up from about 10 percent to about 90 percent in the span of five or six years. Then, I started to take an interest in other ways that we can prevent animal cruelty, like the agriculture industry. That’s what led me to to put out this policy. It’s something that I’ve had experience and success with.
Why doesn’t the moral logic that leads you to want to mostly end euthanasia for cats and dogs lead you to want to, say, ban the killing of animals in factory farms? What’s the difference there?
I think that this is a first step.
This was the policy that, so far has been most mine. And by that I mean it wasn’t on the radar screen of the policy team at all. It was me saying I want to do it. But I had a couple of reservations about it. One reservation was that the experience that I had in San Antonio was that there were hardly any issues that were more just hotly contested and got people’s blood boiling on both sides than the issue of animals. And then, secondly, I knew that one critique of what we would put out would be that it got criticized for not going far enough.
But my answer is I see this as a first step. There are companies now that are getting better and better at creating products that taste like meat. One day, I believe that more and more people are going to choose not to eat meat. One day, we’re going to get to the point where we’re not going to treat animals the way that we have been treating them.
Do you eat meat?
Out of curiosity, why?
I just grew up that way and it became a habit.
I’m interested to hear you eat meat, and I think it’s actually important. I think there can be a tendency to too tightly combine too tightly the recognition of animal suffering as a problem and choosing vegetarianism or veganism as a lifestyle. It seems to me that an important first step for people who care about suffering as a political cause is simply to admit animal suffering into the set of sufferings they care about.
The fact that we’re imperfect, that the world that is not set up for us to easily eliminate the suffering we cause in the daily course of our lives, doesn’t stop us on other issues. The fact that some of the things I do contribute to climate change doesn’t stop me from living a normal life and caring about climate change. I’m mostly vegan personally, but there’s a focus on an almost symbolic purity that I think ends up being limiting in terms of the politics of animal welfare. If the price of entry for people to care about the issue is to live in a way that is quite difficult, then the size of that coalition is necessarily constrained.
I get what you’re saying, and, frankly, that is one of the things that I thought about before we put this policy out. I knew people would say I’m a hypocrite because I eat meat. Which I would understand. But I do have a passion for making sure we take that step. I know that people want to see progress on this issue. So I kind of took a leap of faith. I hoped that people would recognize that we’re trying to make a push in the right direction and challenging other candidates to do the same.
One of the things that your policy statement focuses on is raising standards in factory farms, but it’s not super specific about how you want to do that. So what are some of the things you would like to achieve there?
There are several things that I’d like to achieve to reduce the cruelty that can happen in these factory farms. In the plan we called for establishing minimum space standards for livestock and for poultry. We called for ending some of these efforts by states to institute these what are known as “ag-gag laws” — which essentially provide no transparency on how animals are being treated in these factory farms. And we want to establish an independent certification effort for animal welfare practices in factory farms. The thrust of this is that factory farms will make improvements in how animals are treated.
Something that seems to tie together a couple of the policies we’ve spoken about here is a view that things people often see as tradeoffs in policy may not ultimately be tradeoffs. That refugees can make the country stronger. That policies to reduce homelessness are more effective if the homeless are involved. That a world with less suffering on factory farms and less euthanasia is a world we would prefer to live in. That when we expand our conception of the “we,” we all become better off in the process. That seems to be an important through line here.
Donald Trump has the opposite vision — a very zero-sum vision. And this is one of the major battle-lines of our politics today. So, how do you get people to move out of this zero-sum thinking? How do you tie all this together into a vision?
I go back to the most basic way that we have of persuading people, which is with stories — stories of success. How the refugee made a difference in making their community stronger. The joy that animals in our lives bring. The formerly homeless veteran I met in San Diego who now develops houses for homeless veterans.
I start there. What I’m counting on is that I believe even amidst all of this negative vision of the Trump era, there is a natural optimism of wanting to accept others. Wanting to get beyond the xenophobia and the dehumanization and the keeping certain people out. I’m going to put my faith there and I think that eventually we’re going to win
What do you say to the people who think that Donald Trump is so dangerous that you can’t afford to take a big risk right now and ask people to expand their circle beyond where it is? Those who say you can’t afford to be talking about climate refugees and decriminalizing border crossing — that given the danger Donald Trump represents to many people, Democrats need to play it safe?
Because it gives people a purpose — a purpose they can believe in. It’s not just trying to backfill the negative. It gives people a positive purpose that they can reach for. That’s what I’m trying to do.
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