DES MOINES, Iowa — As they picked over dinner inside a Mexican restaurant, a few dozen Iowans heard Joaquin Castro paint an ominous portrait of life under a Republican president, particularly for the Latinos he said have become a "piñata" in the GOP race for the White House.
The Democratic congressman from San Antonio, visiting this key early voting state for the third time in his life and the first on behalf of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, ticked off the potential consequences: an abrupt rollback of birthright citizenship and reversal of other measures meant to bring people in the country illegally out of the shadows of society.
"I would submit to you that would be the largest and biggest and most brutal American dragnet this country has ever seen, and it would be scary and it represents the worst of America and it's not befitting of those who seek the presidency," Castro warned. "We've got to make sure these people are not elected to any office, much less the highest office."
"If this is how they're talking before the election, can you imagine what happens if one of those guys is sitting in the Oval Office, issuing executive orders?" he later said. "All of the advances that we've made, all the progress we've made towards comprehensive immigration reform — if these guys are elected, they are gone. It's done."
It was one of several themes Castro sounded Sunday as he worked his way across eastern Iowa into Des Moines, drawing low-key but appreciative crowds in his debut trip as a Clinton surrogate. It likely won't be his last, as he — and possibly his twin brother, U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro — is expected to factor prominently in the Clinton campaign's outreach to Latino voters.
At small house parties in Iowa City and Marshalltown, a liberal forum in Des Moines and the Mexican restaurant, Castro pitched Clinton as the most qualified contender, and her candidacy as a historic opportunity to elect the first female president. Yet he also laid out a more practical, starker case for her election, presenting her as a safeguard against GOP efforts to gut President Barack Obama's legacy and roll back modern progressive policies.
On health care reform, Castro reminded an audience Clinton was plugging away on the issue 15 years ago as first lady, experience she would not let go to waste in the Oval Office. "It's why as president she'll make sure that no matter what Ted Cruz says or Donald Trump or anybody else, Obamacare is not going anywhere," Castro said in Iowa City, speaking in the living room of a Clinton supporter's home.
Castro, a regular antagonist of home-state Republicans, was at his most spirited Sunday while bashing GOP candidates as out of the mainstream, far removed from even the party of Ronald Reagan. That was the president "who signed the largest amnesty bill in the nation's history," Castro told liberal activists in Des Moines, looking to show the immigration debate in today's GOP has lurched to the right of even most candidates' presidential idol.
At some stops he said the GOP was not trying to elect a president in 2016 but a "referee" to preside over a fight for the "economic scraps" that could ultimately be left behind by Republican policies.
He found convenient foils in Trump, the outspoken billionaire whose inflammatory rhetoric against illegal immigration has roiled the GOP race, as well as the two Republicans from Texas running for president. At some of his stops, Castro jokingly offered Iowans his condolences for having to deal with frequent visits by former Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, whom the congressman promised to haul back to Texas if he bumped into them on the campaign trail.
Castro's Sunday itinerary was built around talking up immigration reform — the event at the Mexican restaurant was billed as a "Latino Community Event" — but he said he will take on whatever portfolio of issues is needed as Clinton's campaign progresses. "I want to be as helpful as I can and be involved in many issues," he told The Texas Tribune after a stop in Marshalltown, the second event of the day where he was recognized for backing Clinton for president several months before she entered the race.
It was there he also studiously turned away reporter questions about controversies dogging Clinton, dismissing the brouhaha over her use of a private email account at the State Department as a political witch-hunt instigated by Republicans in Congress. Asked about recent polling that shows her lead narrowing, Castro attributed the movement to the normal paces of a presidential contest. And on Joe Biden, whose interest in the 2016 race has raised questions about the strength of Clinton's candidacy, Castro struck a deferential tone, saying it is up to the vice president whether he wants to "commit the energy and the resources to making a run for president."
The congressman also faced questions about his brother, frequently mentioned as a potential running mate for Clinton. Asked a few times Sunday about the persistent speculation, Joaquin Castro said he believed his brother was qualified to be vice president but stressed Julián Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio, is not actively seeking the job, instead focusing on his work in Washington, D.C.
"The vice presidency has got to be one of the few offices in the country that you don't run for," Joaquin Castro said after the stop in Marshalltown. "The nominee of the party picks who the running mate's going to be. So my brother, he understands that's not in his hands. He's not running for that."
Ako Abdul-Samad, an Iowa state representative from Des Moines who saw Castro at the Mexican restaurant, walked away convinced the congressman could be a reliable messenger for Clinton as the Democratic race heats up.
"I think he answered the questions that were on a lot of the individuals' minds," Abdul-Samad said, alluding to politicians who tell voters what they want to hear. "Usually you get that answer and you know when a politician is just — I mean, he was very direct, and I think we all appreciate that."
Alex Piedras, an independent who works at a college in Des Moines, was not as sold on Castro's surrogate power after listening to his predictions about what would happen if a Republican won the White House in 2016.
"I wanted to hear more about Hillary's ideas, her agenda, even why he really supports her," Piedres said. "I really felt like it was a lot of 'This is what Republicans are doing, so be scared, therefore vote for us.'"