Julián Castro found a way to stand out on Wednesday night’s Democratic debate stage by highlighting his knowledge of immigration policy, putting himself in position to see his national profile rise.

NBC News reported that the search term “Julián Castro” spiked by 2,400 percent since 8 p.m. Wednesday, when the first of two Democratic debates started. The former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and mayor of San Antonio joined nine other presidential candidates on stage in Miami to talk about gun laws, climate change, and other headlining issues of the 2020 presidential race.

Castro’s defining moment came when he condemned the current state of immigration in the United States. Referring to the image that the Associated Press first shared Wednesday of a Salvadoran migrant and his daughter who drowned after trying to cross the southern border into the United States, Castro was blunt.

“Watching that image of Óscar and his daughter, Valeria, is heartbreaking,” he said. “It should also piss us all off.”

Castro waited for the applause to subside before continuing, “And it should spur us all to action.”

Castro pledged to honor asylum claims that put undocumented immigrants on a pathway to citizenship.

“And then we’d go to the root cause of the issue, which is – we need a Marshall Plan for Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, so that people can find safety and opportunity at home instead of coming to the United States to seek it,” he said.

Castro’s answers drew praise not only from the debate audience, but also from political commentators, who agreed that the former cabinet secretary showed well among his fellow candidates, several of whom have drawn bigger polling numbers. Activist Shaun King tweeted that Castro “crushed it” and named him the winner of the debate. CNN’s Van Jones said Castro was someone “that came out of nowhere.” And “Castro” was one of the trending topics on Twitter at the end of the night.

However, with the crowded field’s higher-profile candidates set to take the stage for a second debate Thursday night, it’s uncertain how long any bump Castro receives from his performance will last.

Castro highlighted his immigration plan – the first of his policies released as part of his platform, and the first immigration plan from a presidential candidate. He promised to sign an executive order that would eliminate the “Remain in Mexico” policy recently instituted by the Trump administration; the “zero-tolerance” policy which led to the separation of families and children; and the metering policy, which forces asylum seekers to wait before entering the United States through a port of entry.

“This metering policy is basically what prompted Óscar and Valeria to make that risky swim across the river,” Castro said.

Castro also sparred with former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, the other Texan on the stage, over immigration, telling the El Paso resident he had not done his “homework” on the issue. He challenged O’Rourke and every other candidate on stage to pledge to overturn Section 1325 – referring to part of the United States Code that makes entering the country without proper documentation a misdemeanor. Castro is pushing to decriminalize unauthorized immigration and make it a civil violation instead, a position that Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren joined him on recently.

Later in the two-hour debate, Castro added that racial and social justice are important to Latino and black voters, and that he would continue to make that priority. He noted that the white shooter who killed nine at a black church in Charleston was apprehended without injury.

“What about Eric Garner,?” Castro asked to growing applause. “And Tamir Rice, and Laquan McDonald, and Sandra Bland?”

Castro also highlighted his various policy platforms, including his policing reform plan. In the end, he had 8.8 minutes of speaking time, according to the Washington Post’s tracker. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, Warren, and O’Rourke were the only other candidates to secure more time than him.

On a night when both Booker and O’Rourke gave responses in Spanish, Castro began his closing remarks in Spanish and ended them with perhaps the most memorable line of the night: “On January 20, 2021, we will say ‘adiós‘ to Donald Trump.”

Back in San Antonio, people gathered to watch their homegrown candidate take the national stage. In the brewing room of the Dorcol Distilling + Brewing Co., a crowd of around 40 people watched the debate at a party hosted by the bar. While they listened to the debate, they kept their eyes on a “Dem Debate Bingo” card filled with Democratic issue buzzwords like “affordable health care” and “fair shot”.

Down South Flores Street, the Bexar County Democrats held a watch party at the Cadillac Bar. There was applause for almost all the candidates from the crowd throughout the night, but more for Castro. When Castro delivered his “adiós” line, the crowd erupted into cheers.

Local artist Cruz Ortiz, who designs posters and other merchandise for the Castro campaign, hosted a watch party at his studio Wednesday with around 20 people. He said he was impressed by Castro’s performance, and that his Latino background holds weight.

“I think Julián presents himself as a voice for that type of America that doesn’t get to stand in front and get the attention they deserve,” Ortiz said. “He comes from a community that’s underrepresented. He spoke eloquently about plans. He understood how the debate works. I need someone who’s smart, not someone who’s just going to go up there and yap. He really stood out.”

The second Democratic debate airs Thursday at 8 p.m. on NBC.

Rivard Report intern Laura Morales contributed to this report.

Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang is the local government reporter at the San Antonio Report.