A screen at Alamo Drafthouse Park North. shows Julián Castro as he speaks during the second round of debates. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

More than 100 people gathered at Alamo Drafthouse Park North on Wednesday to watch the second night of the second round of Democratic debates. Whenever homegrown San Antonian Julían Castro was given a chance to speak, many in the theater burst into cheers.

The former mayor and secretary of housing and urban development took the opportunity to champion immigration reform once again at Wednesday’s debate in Detroit. Castro pushed to abolish Section 1325 of the United States Code, which makes crossing the border without proper documentation a misdemeanor; he wants to decriminalize the offense and litigate through civil courts instead.

Castro, who advocated for this at the first presidential candidate debate in June, brushed aside criticism that his proposal would lead to “open borders.”

“Open borders is a right-wing talking point, and frankly I’m disappointed that some folks, including some folks on this stage, have taken the bait,” Castro said. “The only way we’re going to guarantee we don’t have family separations in this country again is to repeal Section 1325 of the Immigration [and] Nationality Act. That is the law that this administration is using to incarcerate migrant parents and then physically separate them from their children.”

The audience applauds after Julián Castro speaks during the debate watch party at Alamo Drafthouse Park North.

Most of the talking time went to former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-California), two of the front-runners of the Democratic field. Biden, who leads in almost all national polls, had more than 21 minutes of airtime, and Harris followed with 17 minutes. Castro logged about 10 ½ minutes of speaking time Wednesday night.

Castro continues to face an uphill battle in the Democratic primary, consistently polling around 1 percent.

Biden disagreed with Castro’s proposal to overturn Section 1325, arguing that people who are seeking asylum have the right to do so, while other immigrants can wait for their turn to enter legally. He added that Castro did not raise the issue while serving in the Obama administration.

“The secretary, we sat together in many meetings,” Biden said. “I never heard him talk about any of this when he was secretary.”

Castro hit back, telling Biden that “it looks like one of us has learned the lessons of the past and the other one hasn’t.”

“We have 654 miles of fencing,” Castro said. “We have thousands of personnel at the border. We have planes, we have boats, helicopters, we have security cameras. What we need are politicians to actually have some guts on this issue.”

Biden retorted that he has the “guts to say” Castro’s proposal does not make sense. 

“When people cross the border illegally, it is illegal to do it unless they’re seeking asylum,” Biden said. “People should have to get in line. That’s the problem.”

Sen. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) joined Castro in pushing to decriminalize border crossings. 

“We need to reform this whole immigration system,” Booker said. “Everyone has worth and dignity, and this should be a country that welcomes everyone.”

The first 40 minutes of the debate started off with the topic that dominated the first debate: health care. Harris slammed Biden’s plan as maintaining the status quo, while Biden criticized Harris’s plan as one that is too expensive and that would raise taxes for the middle class.

Though Booker also advocated for a single-payer plan dubbed Medicare for All, he cautioned his fellow candidates to keep their eyes on the prize, which he said was unseating President Donald Trump in 2020.

“The person that’s enjoying this debate most is Donald Trump, as we pit Democrats against each other as he works to take away health care from Americans,” Booker said.

Though candidates seemed to be in agreement that special counsel Robert Mueller’s report suggested Trump had obstructed justice, they disagreed on whether to bring impeachment proceedings forward. Castro said he was the first Democratic presidential candidate to call for Trump’s impeachment and responded to Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colorado), saying it’s possible for Democrats to pursue impeachment proceedings while focusing on other issues.

“I really do believe we can walk and chew gum at the same time,” Castro quipped. ‘At the same time, senator, I think too many folks in the Senate have been spooked by 1998,” he said, referring to the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. “I believe the times are different. I believe folks are making a mistake by not pursuing impeachment.

“The fall of next year, in 2020, [Trump] is going to say, ‘You see? The Democrats didn’t go after me on impeachment, and why? Because I didn’t do anything wrong.’ Conversely, if [Republican Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell lets him off the hook, we can say we did something; it was his friend, Moscow Mitch, who let him off the hook.”

Castro responded to a question about whether raising taxes would hurt the economy by pointing to Americans that he said are hurting now: the unemployed, the homeless, fast-food workers who are struggling to pay rent on their minimum-wage paychecks. 

“The idea that America is doing just fine is wrong,” Castro said. 

At Alamo Drafthouse, Mayor Ron Nirenberg, Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar, State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio), and State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio) watched the debate with the Bexar County Democrats Wednesday.

“Like a lot of you, I’m a San Antonio guy,” Bernal said to the crowd Wednesday. “I’m super excited one of our own is onstage in the second round, and understand I met Julián when we were 10 and 11 years old. The idea that someone from here [is on that stage] is a big deal, whether you’re supporting him or not.”

Texas Southern University in Houston will host the third Democratic debate in September, airing on ABC News and Univision. It is the first time Texas has hosted a presidential primary debate since 2008. Though Castro has enough individual donors, he has not yet met the polling requirement to qualify for the September debate.

Jackie Wang

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