Ellie Handler

Debt relief for Puerto Rico and reform of the United States’ immigration system were the most prominent topics in a Friday forum between U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro and a group of mostly Latino civic leaders from across Connecticut.

Castro’s visit to New Haven, where he was accompanied by Connecticut Sens. Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73 and Chris Murphy, came in the middle of a daylong sweep through Connecticut that also included stops in Hartford and Bridgeport. Castro served as mayor of San Antonio before his federal appointment to HUD in 2014. As a Latino politician prominent in the national Democratic Party, Castro’s name has often come up in discussions about prospective vice-presidential nominees for the 2016 Democratic ticket. Introducing Castro at the Christopher Columbus Family Academy in Fair Haven, Mayor Toni Harp commented on the importance of HUD’s work in the city — the department has played an integral role in the controversies surrounding the living conditions in the Church Street South housing complex.

Castro said he was struck by the Latino culture of Fair Haven, which has the highest proportion of Latino residents of any neighborhood in the city. While driving into the neighborhood, he said he posted a picture on his personal Facebook page of a corner shop with a neon window sign advertising tamales.

“Nobody in San Antonio is going to believe that they have tamales in New Haven, Connecticut,” Castro joked. From the audience, a voice yelled out: “Welcome to New Haven!”

Castro also highlighted the high proportion of Latinos in Connecticut — the community comprises 15 percent of the state’s total population. People often think that Latinos live in southern states like Texas, Arizona and Florida, he said, but the Latino community is strong across the entire country.

Restructuring Puerto Rico’s financial obligations also emerged as an important issue for attendees. Joe Rodriguez, chair of the Connecticut Hispanic Democratic Caucus, expressed concern about a “toxic” environment in Washington that might forestall the possibility of a legislative plan for Puerto Rico in 2016. He called for executive action to breach the deadlock.

Castro said Puerto Rico is an important issue for the federal administration, but he said he hopes Congress can reach a legislative fix to Puerto Rico’s insolvency. Blumenthal — who emphasized the importance of instituting both a short-term fix and long-run reform program — said any legislation on Puerto Rico should be bipartisan, adding that he has worked with Republicans in Congress in recent months to reach a solution.

Blumenthal stressed that any solution for Puerto Rico must treat residents of the island as Americans, a remark that garnered applause around the room.

On immigration reform, Castro said the country must work toward providing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in the United States, calling decadelong waits for citizenship “ridiculous.” Those remarks have particular relevance in Fair Haven, where federal deportation raids provoked outrage among many residents.

Castro added that immigration reform must involve changing the country’s immigration system while also providing a short-term solution by streamlining the current one. Murphy echoed that sentiment, calling for “common sense and conscience” in the enforcement of immigration laws.

Throughout the forum, Castro emphasized the importance of the Latino community to the United States’ future.

“The destiny of the United States and the destiny of the Latino community are intertwined,” he said. “As we talk about issues of economic development, housing and health, of transportation and infrastructure — as the Latino community goes, so goes the United States in the future.”

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who also attended the forum, praised the Connecticut Latino community’s “fierce advocates” for issues like education, housing and fair access to capital. Murphy highlighted the progressive stance New Haven has taken on immigration in recent years — the Elm City Resident Card program, started by former mayor John DeStefano Jr. in 2007, that offers official city identification to all New Haven residents regardless of their immigration status was the first of its kind in the country.

The forum ended on a humorous note with a question from Tomas Reyes, Harp’s chief of staff.

“Very plain and simple: Are you going to be the Democratic nominee for vice president?” Reyes asked.

“I’m going to exercise my right to remain silent here, I think,” Castro said to laughter around the room.