California Senate leader Kevin de León sat down for lunch on Monday, his still-boyish face clouded by an expression of subdued rage and disgust.
He just had come from a contentious hearing at the state Capitol on a series of immigration bills that would cement California’s position as the home office of opposition to President Donald Trump’s immigration policies.
Most contentious of all is a bill de León authored, SB 54, which would largely prohibit local law enforcement agencies from coordinating with federal immigration authorities. With de León leading the way, many ranking Democrats are trying to muscle SB 54 into law as soon as possible in an effort to shield immigrants from mass deportations feared since Trump took office in January. They want to prevent Trump from enlisting local cops and sheriff’s deputies as de-facto immigration agents.
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De León has faced opposition before for his leadership on gun-control issues and immigration-related bills, such as when California decided to allow undocumented immigrants to possess drivers licenses. But now the Senate president pro tem is entering a new dimension of partisan warfare and he knows it.
On Monday he watched as decorum at the Senate hearing dropped to the level of reality TV, with some audience members audibly cursing at opposing views. There was derisive laughter and jeering. Some of the more vocal opponents of SB 54 were of Latino ancestry, and they pointedly told de León he was wasting taxpayer time and money on an issue that would assist people breaking American immigration laws.
Challenging words toward de León and his bill, officially titled the California Values Act, weren’t limited to the hearing. He has been making his case for SB 54 on national television, and his detractors have been especially outspoken on Twitter.
“It’s poisonous. It’s toxic. It’s vitriolic and sad,” he said in an interview Monday. “You have a very neat, bifurcated argument where you are told, ‘What is it about illegal don’t you understand?’ This sets you up as the one who doesn’t understand and therefore you are wrong to begin with. You have no ground to argue.”
By virtue of his position as state Senate leader, de León does have ground to argue and he is doing just that – with a solid majority of Democrats behind him. SB 54 likely will head to a full vote in the Senate within a month.
What happens to the bill and to de León in that time is an open question.
A few months ago, when a majority of polls indicated that Hillary Clinton would cruise to a White House victory, there was speculation that de León would reap the benefits with a plum post in Washington D.C., a scenario that offered any number of positive outcomes for the legislator who rose above a broken home, an absentee father and a myriad of educational and economic setbacks to become a leader in a state where he once felt marginalized.
De León has gone all in on pushing back against Trump, a battle he never imagined he would have to wage and one that comes with as many threats to his career as there were potential opportunities in a Clinton White House.
It’s a battle de León thought was settled when California repudiated the anti-immigrant politics of the 1990s. Back then Gov. Pete Wilson used immigration as a wedge issue to help his career, which inspired de León to get politically active.
“I thought we were past this,” he said. “But Trump is succeeding in taking us backward.”
The challenge de León faces is political and legal. On the political end, his arguments for why the undocumented need to be protected from coordinated efforts from local cops and federal immigration authorities largely falls on deaf ears with Trump supporters and even some of his own allies.
For years, the politics of “illegal immigration” has demonized a population integral to the economy of California and other states. These politics have recycled trite talking points that are now being directed at de León on a daily basis.
De León is trying to make the finer points of a complex argument replete with gray areas. Opponents come back at him with black-and-white criticism. “You get told that (undocumented immigrants) need to do it the ‘right way,’ he said. “But there is no right way. In fact, there is no way.”
What de León means is applications for asylum or legal residence in the U.S. face heavy backlogs and years of waiting. California has a yearly need for low-skill labor that won’t wait. Immigration reform might have resolved the conflict between labor needs and legalization, but there hasn’t been meaningful immigration reform since 1986.
De León points to the failure of Congress to enact immigration reform as the primary reason why California finds itself in a battle against Trump’s deportation policies. “The undocumented are 10 percent of workforce,” he said. “If you are against this population, then you shouldn’t eat because everything … you do eat has been touched by the undocumented. You like bacon? The undocumented work in the slaughter farms. You like apple pie? Peach pie? Rhubarb pie? You like eggs? Egg whites with sauteed spinach and mushrooms? The undocumented.”
Many Californians have no idea how vital undocumented workers are to their everyday lives. In the interior of California, in counties where Trump prevailed, there is now the fear that deportations could mean labor shortages on farms and in other industries this summer. Did some of these people vote against their own interests? Are they similar to Trump voters who now are worried about losing their health care?
What de León and others are trying to do is to cut through the contradictions and craft law that deals with the realities of California’s labor market. To de León, the arguments against his bill don’t take into account how many businesses actually function. “I’m trying to protect our economy,” he said.
De León also said SB 54 is an attempt to quell fears that immigrant communities will stop reporting crimes to authorities if they think the officers might arrest them on immigration offenses for their troubles.
Interestingly enough, one of De León’s chief opponents is Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones, who fears SB 54 will shelter dangerous undocumented immigrants from law enforcement. “It’s a bad bill,” Jones said.
Specifically, Jones is critical of a portion of de León’s bill that requires local law enforcement officers to coordinate with the FBI and not Immigration Customs Enforcement. “We already know what the FBI knows,” Jones said. “We don’t know what ICE knows. If a really bad guy gets arrested for a violent crime, if he’s deported five times or has a significant criminal history with ICE, we would not know.”
Aides to de León say Jones is “fear mongering,” but SB 54 is being fiercely opposed by sheriff’s deputies statewide. Assemblyman Jim Cooper, a former Sacramento County deputy who unsuccessfully ran against Jones for sheriff in 2010, was enlisted as a co-author for the bill by de León. The coming floor fight likely will include debate over whether Jones is right, and dangerous undocumented immigrants would be aided by the law, or if communities would become less safe when local law enforcement is pulled away from its duties to focus on immigration, as de León contends.
“It’s always my advocacy to give law abiding undocumented immigrants a pathway to legal status,” Jones said. “My concern has always been the other population, the serious criminals.”
Meanwhile, de León continues to slug it out verbally with Trump surrogates on social media. It promises to get worse in the coming month. From a rising star to a leader in the Trump resistance, de León’s political life was turned upside down when Trump was elected. And the battle has just begun.