MIAMI (TEXAS TRIBUNE) — Home-state tensions flared between Democratic presidential candidates and native Texans Beto O’Rourke and Julián Castro at their party’s first presidential debate Tuesday night, with Castro saying O’Rourke has not done his “homework” on the issue of immigration.
At issue were the inhumane conditions at detention centers for migrants — including Texas — and a photo published on Tuesday of the bodies of Salvadoran father Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his daughter Valeria, both of whom died while trying to cross the Rio Grande to seek asylum in America.
“Watching those images of Óscar and Valeria is heartbreaking, and should also piss us all off…and it should spur us to action,” Castro said, fielding the first question on immigration.
Several other candidates addressed the matter, including U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, who pledge to end Trump’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement policies.
Castro, who’s trailing a number of his rivals in polling and fundraising, seized the issue. He interjected with Booker and repeatedly urged the other candidates on the stage to repeal Section 1325 of the Immigration and Nationality Act. As currently implemented, Section 1325 makes it a crime to cross the border illegally, and Castro wants to return to treating the act as a civil offense.
But it was when O’Rourke — who had previously been nudged by the debate’s moderators for not directly answering questions — weighed in that Castro began talking over his fellow Texan.
“We would not turn back Valeria and her father, Óscar,” O’Rourke said, when answering a question on what he would do on his first day as president. “We would accept them into this country…we would not build walls, we will not put kids in cages.”
Castro then pelted O’Rourke, asking him why he would not support repealing Section 1325. O’Rourke has expressed unease with going as far as decriminalizing illegal border crossings, questioning what it would mean for prosecuting criminals like drug smugglers and human traffickers. But Castro has countered that there are already other ways for those people to be brought to justice under current law.
“I just think it’s a mistake, I think it’s a mistake, Beto, and I think if you truly want to change the system then we got to repeal that section,” Castro said. “If not, it might as well be the same policy.”
O’Rourke countered that as a member of Congress, he introduced legislation “that would ensure that we don’t criminalize those who are seeking asylum and refuge in this country.”
“I’m talking about everybody else,” Castro interrupted, in what quickly escalated into the most heated exchange of the evening. O’Rourke responded that he was attempting a larger rewrite of the country’s immigration laws.
“That’s actually not true…If you did your homework on this issue, you would know we should repeal this section,” Castro responded.
The scuffle with Castro was not the only time in the debate that O’Rourke took heat. Early on, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio interjected after O’Rourke made the case for Medicare for America, a proposal that would give government-run health insurance to the uninsured but allow those with private insurance to keep it if they like it.
“Congressman O’Rourke, private insurance is not working for tens of millions of Americans,” de Blasio said. “How do you defend a system that is not working?”
“That’s right, so for those who are not working, they can choose Medicare,” O’Rourke said as de Blasio continued to press his point.