It’s laudable that the city of Sacramento has created a “safe haven” task force to push back against the threat of immigration raids, as President Donald Trump pursues more aggressive enforcement of U.S. immigration laws. This effort is led by Councilman Eric Guerra, a son of Mexican immigrants who put himself through Sacramento State as a custodian and sometimes slept in his car when he had no place to live.
It’s laudable that California leaders such as Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León are using the power and prestige of their offices to advocate for the undocumented. De León’s worldview was shaped as a child in San Diego, when he often accompanied his Guatemalan-born mother as she cleaned the homes of well-heeled residents in the fashionable enclave of La Jolla.
Xavier Becerra, California’s new attorney general, stands ready to fight Trump in the courts over immigration and any number of additional issues. Becerra also was raised in the embrace of a Mexican family while growing up in Sacramento.
Much has been written about how California is ground zero for the Trump resistance, but one could argue that immigration shapes up as the most personal fight because of the backgrounds of leaders such as Becerra, de León, Guerra and so many others in this state.
“I can tell you, half of my family would be eligible for deportation under (Trump’s) executive order,” de León told reporters recently. “They got a false Social Security card, they got a false identification. ... That’s what you need to survive, to work.”
Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez of San Diego spearheaded last year’s fight to secure overtime rights for farmworkers – rights that have been enjoyed by most other workers for generations. She wasn’t just pushing a labor issue in the overtime battle. It was personal for her because of family and a career built in the shadow of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Many of California’s Latino leaders came of age in the 1990s, when a forerunner to Trump’s anti-immigrant campaign swept the state in the form of Proposition 187. The 1994 ballot initiative crafted to deny public benefits to undocumented residents was Trump-style identity politics 20 years before Trump rode anti-immigrant animus to the White House.
Proposition 187 was blocked in the courts, but the fervor it stirred became a motivator for the current generation of California Latino leaders to enter the political fray. De León had never run for office until he found his voice as a Proposition 187-era community organizer. Gonzalez, in her Capitol office, prominently displays a striking painting celebrating the United Farm Workers Union. Guerra devotes considerable time to mentoring young Latino students at his alma mater, Sacramento State.
The stories of these leaders are uplifting. They represent how, at least in California, some sons and daughters of a maligned ethnic group secured elective office and have tried to use that office to right past wrongs.
These politics play well in a California growing bluer by the year. Advocating for the undocumented is not politically risky in California. And that is proving to be both a blessing and a curse.
Latino leaders and their Democratic allies are able to win the immigration argument in California by appealing to emotion and public sympathies. They make their case telling stories about family and people with good intentions, while skirting the time bomb inherent in the immigration debate: Namely, that millions of undocumented people living in the United States knowingly flouted U.S. immigration law.
No matter how sympathetic the human stories are, how solid someone’s work ethic, the fact remains that the undocumented experience begins with a violation of law. And that federal leaders have a right and an obligation to protect U.S. sovereignty and U.S. borders. While Mexican politicians rail against Trump, keep in mind that they, too, are cracking down on immigrants. Mexican officials have built their own walls and have their own problems with undocumented immigrants streaming across their border from Central America.
Is immigrant labor critical to California’s economic framework? Yes. Would comprehensive immigration reform have protected many of the undocumented people now vulnerable to Trump’s politics? Yes.
No matter. For California leaders who have pledged to protect undocumented immigrants, Trump is an adversary they are not prepared to fight. They can’t win this battle – or win over his supporters – by appealing to emotion. They can’t win until they formulate a legitimate economic argument that pushes back against the anti-immigrant sentiment Trump rode to the White House.
Becerra articulated the beginnings of an argument when he told The New York Times: “Undocumented workers actually pay billions of dollars in taxes, something only flat-earthers try to deny these days. That’s why every analysis of a comprehensive reform of our broken immigration system reveals that our nation and our economy would benefit from bringing the undocumented out of the shadows.”
Who disagrees with this argument? Jeff Sessions, the former U.S. senator who is now Trump’s attorney general. Sessions consistently voted against comprehensive immigration reform. He is for issuing fewer green cards to legal residents. He contends immigrants take jobs away from Americans, and suck up a huge share of welfare dollars, when research shows otherwise.
One could argue that the Trump administration’s immigration platform promotes a brand of nationalism that rejects the very multiculturalism that Becerra, de León and others rode to elective office. If this is true, California’s leaders not only are taking on a formidable opponent – they are battling a foe that views them as the problem.
You can’t fight that enemy by appealing to sympathy, because the enemy has none.