Julian Castro

Julián Castro Proposes Decriminalizing Illegal Border Crossings

"The next President must start by reversing the cruel policies of the Trump administration."


Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful Julián Castro unveiled his immigration plan on Wednesday, providing a bold foil to President Trump's hardline approach.

"The next President must start by reversing the cruel policies of the Trump administration?—?including the Muslim ban, wasteful spending on a pointless wall, and cuts to the refugee program?—?and ending the vile rhetoric that has scapegoated and vilified immigrants," Castro wrote in a Medium post.

He proposes reclassifying illegal border crossings from a federal crime to a civil infraction, scrapping a law that dates back to 1929, but was seldom enforced until midway through President George W. Bush's administration. Such a move would allow federal courts to focus on prosecuting violent crimes that merit more attention, instead of diverting resources toward criminal trials for undocumented immigrants. In June 2018, 94 percent of prosecutions in the federal districts along the southwest border were for immigration-related crimes—a sure waste of time, considering that crossing the border is a nonviolent offense.

President Trump and his law-and-order administration have defended the crackdown with claims that the undocumented commit crimes at a higher rate than the native-born. To invoke Trump's signature phrase, that's fake news: Reason's Shikha Dalmia notes that U.S. incarceration rates for men aged 18-to-40 are far lower for immigrants than they are for those born in the States, as shown by a 2005 study from the Federal Reserve.

More recently, Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute surveyed the prison population in Texas, the only state to classify convicts by immigration status. He found that, for every 100,000 undocumented immigrants, the overall criminal conviction rate was 50 percent lower than it was for the native-born. Per crime, the conviction rates were 16 percent lower for homicide, 7.9 percent lower for sex crimes, and 77 percent lower for larceny.

Castro proposes a dramatic overhaul of the legal immigration system, "because the most effective way to secure the border is to ensure that our legal immigration policy works for people." He would offer a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million people currently living in the U.S. without permission, and would end the three- and 10-year bans, which bar undocumented immigrants who have overstayed their visas or who crossed the border without inspection from re-entering the country for long stretches of time. Castro's plan also advocates for a more compassionate approach to those seeking asylum, citing the Trump administration's push to limit such claims at ports of entry.

That asylum cap has likely pushed people to seek alternative—and illegal—routes into the U.S. Ironically, Trump has argued that his "zero-tolerance" policy—made notorious by the separation of families at the southern border—will deter potential migrants from making the trek to the States. That hasn't been the case: February 2019 saw the highest number of illegal border crossings in any month in more than a decade.

Castro's plan also mentions a path to citizenship for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) recipients, otherwise known as "Dreamers," who illegally immigrated to the U.S. as young children through no fault of their own. For the most part, that measure has received broad bipartisan support, although Trump has continuously weaponized the precarious legal status of Dreamers for political leverage.

What's more, he suggests shifting money away from detention and toward advanced technology that would more effectively catch human traffickers and drug peddlers—the vast majority of whom come through legal ports of entry.

And while many Democratic leaders have rallied around abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Castro recommends cutting it in half. Similar suggestions have drawn cries of outrage from Republicans, but the idea is hardly radical, considering that the agency has only been in existence for 16 years. During that time, its budget has more than doubled, from $3.3 billion to $7.5 billion.

Castro is certainly correct that a functional legal system is the best deterrent to illegal activity. With arbitrary quotas and a bureaucratic backlog that can take years to navigate, the current system breeds desperation and incentivizes the undocumented to stay undocumented. While Castro's chances of securing the nomination are meek, his plan provides a sensible and stark contrast to the draconian policies currently in place.