Originally posted on Complex October 8th 2020.
2020 has been a year plagued by a lack of clarity and direction, with great loss exacerbated by deep systemic inequalities. The troubling conditions, in America, have been buttressed with recent audio confirming that the executive office knew about the ruinous potential of COVID-19, and willfully misled the public. So far, the death toll from the virus has crossed 200,000. Deep fissures in the country’s fabric have been exposed, revealing the urgence of policy around healthcare, immigration, housing, and policing. Amongst all of the noise, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro has been at the vanguard, facilitating these conversations on the national stage.
Despite not being a front-runner during primary season, Castro has made waves for framing the immigration conversation around policies such as Section 1325 and 287(g), which criminalizes illegal entry and enforces compulsory collaboration with local law enforcement. Castro focuses on repositioning the narrative of the “American Dream” as one that should be reformed and enabled rather than obstructed, considering the amount of national investment in the flawed precept that we are a country built on the backs of immigrants.
On the policing front, Castro has advocated for policies that, on the debate stage, seemed left of center, but have now shifted to an accepted standard in the ongoing conversation driven by Black activists and the Black Lives Matter movement: demilitarizing the police, establishing databases to track decertified police officers, making disaggregated arrest data publicly available, removing police from student discipline practices, and ending qualified immunity. While few people could have predicted a housing crisis as grave as the one that has befallen us, his platform, framed around guaranteeing housing as a human right, extended the conversation to protections for incarcerated, indigenous, and trans communities, reminding the country that the least protected amongst us are the most imperiled in times of crisis.
Despite Castro’s foresight in shaping current conversations, emphasis on him has been muted. During the DNC, he was not given an independent speaker slot, instead speaking on a panel—an observation further amplified by the lack of Latinx presence. Unfettered, Castro has continued to be an advocate for the Democratic Party and delegate for the Biden campaign, balancing his family life with being an active advocate for the Biden-Harris ticket in the waning weeks of the election.
Complex spoke with Castro about ICE, policing, housing policy, the fight to preserve democracy in the path forward, and whether COVID-19 reframes the approach we should be taking to these areas. The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
With what’s been happening in Georgia, whistleblower Dawn Wooten alleging unacceptable medical practices in the Irwin County Detention Center facility that she was a contractor at, what do you think people should be considering when examining these sorts of reports and exposes that become sensational?
Americans ought to recognize that ICE has been an utter failure. It has a track record of abuse, cruelty, under performance. It’s been an utter disaster as an agency. We also need to separate the idea of enforcement of our immigration laws from ICE. Is there going to be enforcement? Are we ever going to do away with enforcement, totally do away with enforcement of our immigration laws? No. But, does that mean that it ought to look like ICE does? Absolutely not. During the campaign, I called for breaking up ICE, and ensuring that we bring common sense and compassion to our immigration approach. My hope is that we’re going to have an opportunity, starting in 2021, to do that. ICE was created only in 2003—not even 20 years old—so we have an opportunity to create enforcement that actually respects human beings, and also fundamentally is in keeping with our values. That is not ICE.
One of the things that was really dynamic about your immigration platform was that it wasn’t just focused around undocumented immigrants, but also examining and restructuring our broken legal immigration system. Do you think there is a way to re-examine “immigrating to this country the right way,” and how we think about our immigration system as it currently exists?
It’s clear that we have to both address the 11 million undocumented immigrants who are here and part of the fabric of the nation, and also improve our legal immigration system. Too many people have to wait far too long to become United States citizens. In fact, I’m convinced that more people would try to apply for citizenship in the first place if we had a system that wasn’t broken the way that ours is. We need to stop abusing people who are going through legal means, like requesting asylum. We should be honoring those requests with due consideration, instead of implementing a cruel policy like “Remain in Mexico.” There’s plenty of work we need to do to improve our legal immigration system. If we do that work, we can be a nation that is stronger, respectful of human lives, and ultimately more successful.
I want to pivot to talking a little bit about housing. We are in a unique time that has taken a toll on a lot of us, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the crisis that it’s caused. As the former secretary of housing and urban development, what thoughts do you have about investments we should be making on a local and state level as we are concerned about our health and stability over the coming months—possibly the coming year?
We need to do two basic things. In the short term, we need robust, direct rental assistance, and the extension of a nationwide eviction moratorium that’s effective. Not only do we need to ensure that people can stay in their homes right now in the middle of this pandemic, but also that they’re not going to be summarily evicted a few months down the road because they have a lot of back due rent that they’re unable to pay in a lump sum.
In the long term, we need to recommit ourselves as a country to investing in housing that’s affordable to the middle class and to lower-income individuals. We ought to see housing as a human right, make significant investments in creating more housing units throughout this country, and ensure that people can get into those housing units so we get closer to that goal. We’re talking about investment in housing choice vouchers, the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, in the home program and in a renter’s tax credit that would ensure people can keep up with rent as it continues to spike across the country. I believe that we need to invest in order to create millions of more units over the next 10 years.
One thing that stood out about your platform was the proposal to explicitly ensure that formerly incarcerated people have housing rights, guaranteeing the rights for trans men and women to have placement in shelters, even the public charge rule [for immigrants]. Do you think that there’s a way to continue to maintain that relevance, as we continue to remind people that housing is a human right?
We need to fully enforce the Fair Housing Act, and make a commitment to include everybody in housing opportunity – whether it’s the LGBTQ community, or people of different backgrounds—because too often, even in the year 2020, the color of your skin, your gender identity, or sexual preference affects your housing opportunity and it shouldn’t be that way. In the Obama administration, we were making real progress toward fair housing. Unfortunately, we’ve completely gone backwards during the Trump administration. One of the first orders of business for the next administration when it comes to housing should be to put us back toward a level playing field for everybody.
One of the most disappointing things of this election season is that President Trump is trying to stoke white fear and resentment, by suggesting that the suburbs are going to be overrun with Black Americans, and other people of color that will somehow destroy the suburbs. It is shameful, it is cynical, and I believe that the vast majority of Americans can see through that.
We’re concerned about this destabilization, homelessness, and unemployment largely because of the COVID crisis. Trump had a town hall on September 15—and notably, he had an exchange with Professor Ellesia Blaque around the Affordable Care Act. Do you have any thoughts around what Trump has committed to delivering, what our current citizenship deserves to have as a healthcare service, what the current crisis shows that we need as a populace from a healthcare perspective, and what to focus on in the coming months?
Families across the country are rightfully very concerned about healthcare, right now, because they need it and know they’re going to need it in the years to come. At this very moment Donald Trump and his administration are in court to strip away the protections of the Affordable Care Act, including protections that ensure people with preexisting conditions won’t be kicked to the curb by insurers.
We have a very clear choice between a president who wants to do away with the opportunity for millions of Americans to have good healthcare, and has not produced any kind of plan for them to be able to keep their healthcare—he only gives lip service to a plan—and Joe Biden, who worked with Barack Obama to create the greatest advancement in healthcare opportunity that we’ve seen, with tens of millions of people who were able to get healthcare for the first time because of the Affordable Care Act.
When we think about what families need right now in this moment—good healthcare, good job opportunities and small business opportunities, secure housing, and equality—we’re living with an administration who has utterly failed on each of these. I’m convinced that Americans are ready to dream big again about the country that we can be so that we see housing as a human right and healthcare as a human right, and we act in that way. We know that’s not going to happen overnight. It’s not going to happen in a couple of years. But it can happen in the years to come, and there’s no better time to start than right now, when COVID-19 has made so clear that we need to change course. There are too many people getting left behind, getting left out, suffering, who shouldn’t be.
Everyone has had a very robust reaction to the ongoing police violence, but you have a very active platform around demilitarizing the police and tackling qualified immunity. Any thoughts around how we should create more accountability with police unions, police militarization, and creating accountability around their actions, and not losing momentum as we continue to make that a platform for Black and brown communities?
We must come to recognize that we don’t have to choose between safe communities and respecting people’s rights, no matter the color of their skin or their background. We can do both of those. We can ensure that there is public safety, but also that just because you’re Black, you’re not going to get treated with excessive force by police or have to speak to your 12 year old son about what to do in a few years if he gets stopped by an officer because you’re worried for his life.
We live in a country that’s better than that. I’m encouraged that cities across the nation have taken up the challenge of re-imagining public safety so that we can do both of those things. Places like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and states like Colorado passed sweeping legislation to restrict qualified immunity, increased accountability in policing, and make investments to ensure that no matter who you are, you’re treated the same by police.
I hope that in Washington, DC, the Senate will take up the George Floyd Justice In Policing Act, because as Vice President Biden has said, it is a down payment on the change that we need to make, to improve public safety in the years to come.
In September, Castro launched a podcast with Lemonada Media called Our America, which puts a spotlight on vulnerable communities not often addressed in politics.