Rep. Joaquin Castro warns of GOP’s adversarial rhetoric around Latino immigrants

U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, poses for a portrait in his Rayburn House Office Building office, on Oct. 12 in Washington, D.C. (Julia Nikhinson For The Texas Tribune, Julia Nikhinson For The Texas Tribune)

Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

Recommended Videos

WASHINGTON — As Republican candidates made their pitches for the White House on the debate stage Wednesday night, almost all supported responding to the situation on the border with a military response.

Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said she would send special operations into Mexico to “take out the cartels.” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said “we’re going to shoot them stone-cold dead.” Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy said he would be “smoking the terrorists on our southern border.”

To U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, it’s a culmination of years of adversarial stances against Latinos and Latin American migrants, from “build the wall” to “invade Mexico”.

And he fears the policy consequences will be catastrophic.

“Republican rhetoric has gotten increasingly more reckless over the past six months,” U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, said in a recent interview. “The carnage and the devastation will take place in Mexico, but it will also be incredibly destabilizing, which will lead to waves of migration into the United States.”

Castro, the highest-ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, has made improving discussion of Latinos and Latino issues in politics a focus of his time in office. He has been an advocate for stronger diplomatic cooperation with Latin America to address issues ranging from historical U.S. intervention in the region to modern day migration. He joined a trip to Colombia, Brazil and Chile last August with some of his fellow Democrats to discuss common challenges with democracy, migration and security.

He now warns that what was once a fringe idea of using military force to curb the flow of migrants at the southern border could grow into serious policy under a Republican president, affronting U.S. diplomacy and violating another country’s sovereignty.

For Republicans, securing the border comes first. They have made a host of otherwise bipartisan priorities conditional on major policy changes to harden the border. They often cast criminal gangs in Mexico as an existential threat on par with the challenges to the liberal world order from nuclear-armed states like Russia and China.

U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Humble, introduced legislation in January to authorize the use of military force against cartels in Mexico. The move caused fierce backlash from Democrats and the Mexican government over concerns it infringed on Mexico’s sovereignty. House Republican leadership appointed Crenshaw to lead a bipartisan task force on cartel violence.

Crenshaw contends that the legislation would not necessarily mean troops on the ground in Mexico and would allow intelligence sharing between the two countries.

“No one is talking about an invasion or war with Mexico,” Crenshaw said on social media. “We’re focused squarely on one mission: taking down the cartels. We’d expect our President to use the AUMF to work alongside Mexico’s military.”

Crenshaw invited Ecuador’s conservative President Guillermo Lasso to the U.S. Capitol in September to discuss opportunities for collaboration between the two governments.

“For Ecuador, it is essential to continue with the cooperation of the United States for the exchange of information and intelligence, the strengthening of anti-drug units, as well as the training of our security forces,” Lasso said in Spanish.

But Castro fears that the rhetoric coming from the top of the ticket could eventually trickle into something more violent. He acknowledges that the current administration has no interest in using any congressional authority to use military force in Mexico, but a future Republican president could be far more eager to do so.

It was apparent on the debate stage Wednesday. Haley, a former top diplomat in the Trump administration, said she didn’t care what her colleagues at the U.N. would say about an armed intervention in Mexico to go after cartels.

Former President Donald Trump, who hasn’t participated in any Republican primary debates this year, already pitched military action going back to 2020, The New York Times reported last month. He proposed at the time missile-striking Mexico to combat drug manufacturing. The idea never went anywhere.

Castro isn’t alone in Congress in his concerns. He introduced a resolution last month denouncing military intervention in Mexico and calling on the president to engage in diplomatic solutions with the Mexican government. It states “that any act of aggression on Mexico’s sovereign territory without their consent could be considered an act of war and a violation of international law.”

The resolution isn’t legally binding but would put members on the record on the issue. Over 30 other Democrats cosponsored the resolution, including Texans Veronica Escobar, Sheila Jackson Lee, Sylvia Garcia, Greg Casar and Jasmine Crockett.

No Republicans have so far signed on — the resolution was introduced as Republicans were wrangling with electing a new speaker — but Castro said he’s heard from Republicans who were concerned presidential candidates could direct their party toward more aggressive military action in Mexico.

“These presidential candidates will take this position, and then the right wing base of the Republican Party adopts that position and demands that every Republican candidate who's running for president to school board, take on the same position,” Castro said.

And the discussions have already caused consternation across the Rio Grande. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador denounced the talk as threatening his country’s sovereignty, though Republicans argue they’ve tried working with the Mexican government but without much success. Mexico is one of the country’s top trading partners and Texas’ biggest export markets, and most bipartisan efforts have called for greater collaboration with the country.

“The better Mexico does, by defeating the cartels, by interdicting the drugs, and the precursors that come from other parts of the world, the better the quality of life, the safety and security will be for the people who live in Mexico, the Mexican people,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said on the Senate floor after a bipartisan congressional delegation to Mexico.

The U.S.’ history in Latin America is mired with interventions that have caused deep instability lasting generations, Castro said. Addressing the legacy of some of those interventions was a major goal of the congressional delegation Castro participated in to Chile, Colombia and Brazil last summer.

The group, which also included Casar, met with elected leaders and members of civil society in Chile to discuss the U.S. role in the ouster of socialist president Salvador Allende, leading to the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

“There're so many policies that the United States has engaged in that have been counterproductive and that have led not only to desperation in Latin American countries, but often lead to involuntary migration,” Casar said in an interview after the trip.

During a Foreign Affairs hearing in September with Defense Department general counsel Caroline Krass and State Department Legal Adviser Richard Visek, both officials told Castro that the Biden administration did not view drug smuggling or other cartel activities as sufficient to grant the president authority to launch a military intervention in Mexico under current law.

But that isn’t assuring Castro of what happens after President Joe Biden’s time in office.

“I don't think that the White House or anyone else should believe for a second that these people are just joking around and that there's no way that this proposition could take on any real light in the coming years,” Castro said. “They should be taking it seriously.”

Disclosure: The New York Times has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.