Patrick and Castro Clash in Immigration Debate, But for What Purpose?

Note: The original version of this story appeared on The Quorum Report. Join us there daily for coverage of Texas politics and government. 


San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro and Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, debate in the Alamo City

In an hour-long exchange that shed nearly zero light on policy but did give both sides plenty of heat to try to exploit with various constituencies, Sen. Dan Patrick and San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro talked past each other in perhaps the oddest debate I’ve witnessed since Patrick debated another elected official he wasn’t running against. But, the two did earn plenty of applause from a small audience in Univision’s studios in the Alamo City.

Those who watch Texas politics closely will remember that Sen. Patrick similarly debated State Board of Education Vice Chairman Thomas Ratliff in Tyler about an issue that, like immigration, inflames some on the right: The CSCOPE lesson plans that have been criticized as “un-American” by some but that many educators have said are a  necessary teaching tool. That, of course, is a fringe issue compared to immigration and border security, which will help shape the Texas economy and political reality for decades to come.

In Tuesday night’s debate in San Antonio, Sen. Patrick started off by saying he is compassionate and added that it should concern Democrats like Castro to see women being raped by those engaged in human smuggling and to likewise see communities savaged by those in the drug trade.

“You can get emotional about this and political about this, but your job is to protect the safety of the city,” Patrick said. The frontrunner for the GOP Lite Guv nomination faulted members of both parties in Washington for not acting on immigration reform. He said that if legal immigration was expanded and the border was secured, “illegal immigration would stop.”

“Texas is not being invaded by Mexico,” Castro said and pointed out that the US Senate has already passed a bipartisan bill to address both border security as well as create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who earn it.

Castro said Republican leaders like Patrick should call House Speaker John Boehner and plead with him to hold votes on the issue. Republicans and Democrats alike in Texas have been “good on tone” and have taken a reasonable approach to immigration, Castro said. He said Patrick has been the outlier in his own party and has been “huffing and puffing” like the “big bad wolf.” State leaders have consistently rejected harsh crackdowns of the type enacted in places like Arizona, Castro said.

When Patrick repeated the claims he’s made about immigrant apprehensions, Castro noted the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express News fact-check of those claims, which found they do not match reality. In defending his comments on border security, Patrick said he could not divulge what he called “classified” information. “You’re wrong for Texas,” Castro said.

Though both men said they were there to discuss policy, moderator Evan Smith – who is thought by many to be one of the best debate moderators in the state – did not keep the two from flogging each other with political talking points. Given his tweets afterward, it is fair to say he did not try.

“I’m the only candidate the Democrats fear,” Patrick said. To that, Castro’s quick retort was “Actually, you’re our meal ticket back in.”

On some specifics, Sen. Patrick said that a path to citizenship should be dropped from any reform being considered by Congress. He said legal status would be sufficient. That is in spite of his comments that the Republican Party of Texas should drop its support for a guest worker program at their convention this summer.

Castro pressed Patrick about his promise to end the in-state tuition break for undocumented children that Texas business interests recognize as a wise investment and Gov. Perry has been attacked for by his fellow conservatives. “I appreciate the fact that they finished high school and want to better their lives,” Patrick said. However, “If I have to choose between the two …I will stand up for the citizen of Texas,” he said.

Preserving the price break for those students and creating a path to citizenship would not be “rewarding people for breaking the law,” Castro said. He said there are millions of people in the country who are here without legal status who should qualify for citizenship if they earn it through paying fines, learning English, and going to the back of the line. “I agree with you there,” Castro said to Patrick. The mayor said the United States would be doing “just like Reagan did in the 80’s,” except now there would be “punitive conditions.”

As the debate closed, the campaign of the man running against Patrick right now was quick to release a sharply worded statement. “The political circus rolled through San Antonio tonight and trampled an important policy issue into an unrecognizable mess,” said Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s spokesman Chris Bryan. “Texans understand the importance of securing the border, but were subjected to an hour of name calling and wild tangents.”

Meantime, the Democratic nominee for Lt. Gov, Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, was hailed as the obvious choice by members of her party. “The people of El Paso experienced the real Dan Patrick. One who refers to our border regions as war zones and who does not recognize the rich culture between the United States and Mexico,” said Rep. Mary Gonzalez, D-El Paso. “We need a strong female leader, and that leader is Leticia Van de Putte,” she said. Several statements from other Latino Democratic leaders followed.

Van de Putte’s campaign manager Scott Remley said Patrick “repeatedly spoke of his vision of Texas in which there is only “one seat left” and of a Texas that no longer has a can-do spirit. Our state deserves a leader who will learn from the mistakes of Pete Wilson and Jan Brewer and fight for more seats and more opportunity for every hardworking Texan.”

Both Castro and Patrick will score this as a win. In fact, Patrick was quick to do so. “This wasn’t about winning or losing,” Patrick said, “but I do feel that I won in San Antonio tonight because I got to discuss one of the most pressing public policy issues in our state.”

Mayor Castro’s rise to stardom as a Latino in the Democratic Party will likely be bolstered by duking it out on Spanish language television with the senator who has said immigrants are bringing disease and crime across the border in an “invasion.”

Given that the type of voter who’s most easily angered over the issue of illegal immigration is the same voter most likely to cast a ballot in the May 27 primary runoff, Patrick’s rise to power could be greatly helped by battling a Latino mayor about the issue. But what it says for the long-term health of his party is another matter. The Latino GOP vote was steadily rising until conservatives came out furiously against President Bush‘s failed push for immigration reform. It has since fallen off a cliff.

Copyright April 15, 2014, Harvey Kronberg,, All rights are reserved. Reprinted with permission. 

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