On Dec. 12, Julián Castro, the former secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Obama, announced that he is forming a presidential exploratory committee in preparation for a possible 2020 run. The grandson of a Mexican immigrant, Castro was raised by a single mother in San Antonio, Texas, completed his undergraduate education at Stanford University, and then graduated from Harvard Law School. At 34 years old, in 2008, he was elected mayor of his hometown, where he expanded pre-K education, along with college advising and test prep for local students. In 2012, he gained national attention as the keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention; in 2016, he was rumored to be on the short list of Hillary Clinton’s potential running mates. Politics runs in Castro’s family: His mother, Rosie Castro, is a civil rights activist, and his twin brother, Joaquín Castro, is a Democratic congressman from Texas. In fact, Joaquín was the one to say Julián planned to run for the presidency, when the two recently appeared on The Late Show.
Bustle's Alicia Menendez spoke with Castro about his decision to explore running, the stakes of the election, and the possibility of becoming America’s first Latino president.
Alicia Menendez: You are the first of what many anticipate will be about a dozen Democratic hopefuls to officially announce an exploratory committee. Why do it now?
Julián Castro: I have a strong vision for the country's future and I've had a chance to travel the country over the last several years and get a sense of what people are looking for in [their] next leader. I believe it's time. I'm going to go on my own time table. I expect, as you mentioned, that eventually there are going to be a whole bunch of candidates in the race, but I'm going to stick to my own timetable.
AM: When you say you have a vision for the country, what is that vision?
JC: My vision is that the United States be the smartest, the strongest, and the safest nation on Earth in the 21st century. Today, more than ever, each of those three things goes together. So, for instance, these challenges that we're dealing with at the border: It is smarter and would make us stronger if, instead of scapegoating immigrants, we would finally get serious about forging the kind of alliance with Mexico and Latin America that we forged with Europe post-World War II, and ensure that people could be safe and could find opportunity in their own country instead of having to come to the border of the United States.
I believe Democrats today are more open-minded; they're more inclusive; they're trying to ensure that everybody counts in this country. The thing is, you can't just talk about that. You’ve got to demonstrate it.
AM: You’ve said that you haven’t spoken to former President Obama about your potential candidacy. Any reason why?
JC: No. I definitely am going to do that, as well as with the Clintons [and] other Democratic leaders. I fully intend to do that; I just haven't done that yet.
AM: Outside of the establishment, who are you meeting with and listening to in this exploratory period?
JC: The most interesting things that I hear are from people that I've met along the way, in the states that I visited over the last year and a half supporting young progressive Democrats. I've met folks who were teachers who have expressed their concerns about public education, and housing advocates who have talked about rents that are spiking across the United States. I've talked to senior citizens that are worried about the future of Medicare and Social Security.
AM: You were raised by a strong feminist. How does that manifest in your vision of America?
JC: I'm convinced that I wouldn't be where I am today if my mother hadn't been a Chicana and given my brother and me a strong sense of fighting for social justice. And that informs my view of what we need to do in the United States. Today, we have a president who is trying to take the country backward and trying to pick and choose who gets opportunity in the country and who doesn't, based on how you look or what place you come from. I want an America where everybody counts.
I'm worried, like a lot of Americans, because of the new composition of the Supreme Court. And that means that we have to redouble our efforts to use the legal system effectively to protect that right.
AM: Beyond your mother, who or what would you say has had the greatest impact on your worldview?
JC: My life experience growing up on the west side of San Antonio. My grandmother, who came as an immigrant from Mexico and never made it out of elementary school and worked as a maid, a cook, and a babysitter, but was able to provide for my mother and make sure that she could go to college, and was like a second parent to Joaquín and me. She was, in addition to my mother, the most influential person in my life. And seeing her legacy of hard work and what that meant to our family has given me a very deep respect for the sacrifices that so many families are making right now that are just trying to get by. I'm thinking of them when I support Medicare for all, or increasing our investment in public education, or focusing on jobs that pay a living wage.
AM: In light of Brett Kavanaugh's recent confirmation to the Supreme Court, many reproductive justice advocates are bracing for continued restrictions to abortion access. How do you ensure women have access to reproductive care regardless of where they live?
JC: Well, I'm proud of the efforts of the legal community that has stood up for reproductive choice. I'm also proud of Planned Parenthood and the services they provide for women throughout the country. I'm worried, like a lot of Americans, because of the new composition of the Supreme Court. And that means that we have to redouble our efforts to use the legal system effectively to protect that right. It means that we all need to work hard to elect representatives from the state assembly level on up that respect choice. And, as candidates who are thinking about running for president, we need to be vocal in our support of choice, and I intend to be that.
AM: We've heard a lot about free college for all, but tackling the cost of college doesn't address the debt crisis many members of my generation find themselves in today. Would a Castro presidency take on existing student debt?
JC: I absolutely believe that we should look at that and do something about it. We have a lot of people who are not able to buy a home or save for retirement because they're still paying hundreds, or even more than a thousand dollars a month in student loan payments well into their 40s and sometimes their 50s. We ought to look at how we can provide some relief to folks. I heard so many stories, when I was HUD secretary, about young people that wanted to buy a home but just simply couldn't afford it because they had an $800 or $900 student loan payment. So I think there are ways that we can look at addressing the debt that already exists that people have in addition to, most importantly, making it much more affordable to attend college in the future.
AM: From the child separation policy, to the current “metering” happening at the border, to President Trump saying he's willing to take responsibility for shutting down the government over funding for his border wall, the Trump administration's approach to immigration is focused almost exclusively on deterring future immigration. What is your vision for America's immigration system?
JC: My vision is that we have an immigration system that is effective at the border in a smart way and also compassionate and humane with people that arrive at the border seeking asylum, with people who are apprehended who are undocumented, and with the 11 million people who are here who are undocumented — the vast majority of which are law-abiding individuals who simply want to make a better life for themselves and their family. We need comprehensive immigration reform. We need a DREAM Act. We ought to find a way to provide for border security that is smart and effective instead of something like a wall, which I completely disagree with and I see as a waste of money.
AM: Under the Obama administration, there was a theory that stepped-up enforcement was necessary for garnering Republican support on comprehensive reform now. And at the time, there was a feeling among those in the immigration advocacy community that the Obama administration's enforcement policies were needlessly harsh. Do you agree?
JC: I believe the Obama administration got better on the issue of immigration over time, culminating in DACA and DAPA. But those are lessons that, hopefully, have been learned. And when there's a new Democratic administration, we will understand that Republican support is not going to come based on the number of deportations.
What I intend to do is to speak my mind and also speak from my experience of growing up in Texas, of being a public servant here, of knowing that the people that are showing up on our country's doorstep are good people who simply want a better life for themselves and for their family.
AM: As a member of his administration, did you, at the time, raise flags about those enforcement policies? And if you did not, in hindsight, do you wish you had?
JC: I did express disagreement in 2014 with the administration's approach, especially with respect to family members of DREAMers. As you will remember, in 2014, in that same year, the administration pursued DAPA. And so I was there for the last two and a half years when, I believe, the administration was doing a better job on this issue than before.
AM: Do you think that ICE needs to be abolished?
JC: I believe it needs to be reconstituted. By that, I mean that the 19 folks who work for ICE that said it wasn't effective were right. And, that what we saw with the death of a 7-year-old migrant girl is the result of a system that dehumanizes and disrespects the life of these human beings. We need to change the culture of ICE. It needs to be reconstituted.
AM: With immigration from Central America through Mexico undoubtedly being front and center in the 2020 campaign, is being Latino an asset or a liability to you, as a candidate?
JC: I have no doubt that that'll probably cut both ways. But what I intend to do is to speak my mind and also speak from my experience of growing up in Texas, of being a public servant here, of knowing that the people that are showing up on our country's doorstep are good people who simply want a better life for themselves and for their family. I also believe that the Latino community feels attacked right now. And so there will be a special meaning, a special significance to my candidacy.
AM: And if there isn't a Latino on the Democratic debate stage, what message would that send about the Democratic Party?
JC: The advantage that Democrats should have today is that we're a bigger tent party. I believe Democrats today are more open-minded; they're more inclusive; they're trying to ensure that everybody counts in this country. The thing is, you can't just talk about that. You’ve got to demonstrate it. You’ve got to show it. And, having full representation of a diverse set of people, a diverse group of people, helps to show that.
AM: And if you are elected, what would it mean to this country to have its first Latino president on the heels of a Trump presidency?
JC: Of course, it would be groundbreaking and I believe it would show the progress that we've made as a country [since] my grandmother came to Texas in 1922. … We've made a lot of progress and when that time comes that you have a Latino or a Latina elected president, that's going to be one more sign of the progress that we've made as a country.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.