By virtue of his position as attorney general of California, Xavier Becerra is and will be a frequent adversary of President Donald Trump and his policies.
This past month, Becerra announced that California was suing the U.S. Department of Justice over Trump administration threats to cut off public safety funds for cities and states that don’t cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
Now, he’s signaled he’s prepared to sue the Trump administration again, with plans to announce the suit Monday. This time, it would be over the administration’s decision to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which has provided legal protections to nearly 800,000 undocumented young people brought to the U.S. without legal permission when they were children.
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Becerra, 59, is firmly in the corner of the young people dubbed “Dreamers.” His otherwise amiable face darkens behind his sensible glasses when the subject of DACA is raised. As a long-time congressman from Los Angeles, Becerra watched in frustration as several legislative efforts to help DACA kids failed on Capitol Hill. Now as AG of the state with the largest DACA population, he is eager to challenge Trump on this issue in particular.
For Becerra, a Sacramento native who is scarcely known in his hometown because he made his bones at Stanford, in L.A. political circles and in Washington D.C., protecting “Dreamers” is of fundamental importance. The possibility that young people who have passed numerous background checks, received good grades, secured employment – even served in the U.S. military – could be deported does not sit well with him, a notion he expressed in July when he led a group of 20 attorneys general in sending a letter to Trump, urging him to maintain DACA.
With hair combed neatly to one side, and dressed almost daily in suits that aren’t so much pressed as they are vigorously starched, Becerra is dutifully methodical when performing all the typical functions as California’s attorney general.
He has been going after polluters, drugmakers, scam artists. Becerra filed 15 felony counts against David Daleiden, the Davis-born anti-abortion radical who made national headlines in 2015 by releasing secretly recorded video of Planned Parenthood officials making embarrassing comments about tissue and organ harvesting. And when several states planned to sue the Trump administration over threats to the Affordable Care Act, there was Becerra, front and center, with his counterpart from New York.
Appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown in January to fill the vacancy caused by the election of Kamala Harris to the U.S. Senate, Becerra already is building an impressive reputation for his fast-approaching re-election next year. He’s pro choice, reliably progressive, and yet he does not inspire the antipathy of say, a Kevin De Leon – the leader of the state Senate and another high profile Latino politician from L.A.
Becerra is as measured as De Leon is provocative. While more than a dozen other states already have filed a DACA lawsuit, Becerra, ever deliberate, has taken his time, saying California is disproportionally harmed by the end of the program. (On Friday, Janet Napolitano – the president of the University of California – filed a lawsuit as well.)
Moreover, Becerra has shown he’s not going to going to rock the boat on elemental issues such as law enforcement. He’s resisted calls suggesting he create an independent review unit within his office that would investigate cops in cases in which officers use deadly force. On this issue, Becerra is reliably accommodating to the wishes of the police and their powerful unions.
But when asked about immigration, Becerra’s demeanor changes. While he doesn’t lose his measured mien, it becomes clear how much the issue means to him. He is, after all, the son of immigrants whose world view was shaped by his parents, Manuel and Maria Teresa. Becerra’s mother is from the Mexican state of Jalisco, and though his dad was born in Sacramento, the elder Becerra spent many years in Mexico.
The Becerras thought about raising their kids in Mexico, but chose to stay in Sacramento because it offered their children a better life. Spanish was spoken in their home, and the Becerra kids were taught to strive, follow the rules, work hard, uphold their family name and the reputation of their ethnic group.
Becerra’s life and career have been guided by these principles. Consequently, when he is asked about what he is proudest of in his seven-plus months as California’s attorney general, his answer is telling: “That we are standing up for people like Manuel and Maria Teresa Becerra,” he said.
It’s not that Becerra doesn’t understand that some undocumented immigrants are dangerous and should be deported. He has no qualms about expelling immigrants who break the law. But he bristles at the idea that hard working immigrants should be kicked out simply because they don’t have documentation. Becerra believes Congress has failed to pass meaningful immigration reform, and that it is against the interests of California to upend productive lives because legislators aren’t legislating.
He remembers his own family when he reads news stories of otherwise diligent immigrants being deported and families being broken up. In a very real sense, Becerra’s presence as the highest law enforcement official in California is a rebuke to those who willfully refuse to fix a broken system. In a very real sense, his life as a dutiful son of Spanish-speaking parents is a rebuke against the nativist rhetoric of a president who kicked off his presidential campaign by referring to Mexican immigrants as “rapists.”
“Xavier and his family are examples of what immigrants do in our communities,” said Luis Cespedes, a long-time friend and Sacramento lawyer and community activist.
Becerra credits his parents for helping him develop his work ethic and drive to succeed, a point illustrated by stories from a humble childhood.
Manuel and Maria Teresa had a little house in south Sacramento but wanted more space for Xavier and his three sisters. They couldn’t afford to buy a bigger house, so Manuel decided to build it himself. By day, he worked construction, helping to erect many of the freeway overpasses that cut through Sacramento. After work, with the help of friends – and knowing where to get materials cheap – Manuel built a two-story family home. The big luxury was a second bathroom.
“He would come home from work, shower, eat a little something and get to work,” Maria Teresa said recently. “He would work until 3 a.m., take a nap and then go back to work.”
By 1967, the Becerras had their bigger home and Xavier went off to McClatchy High School. He became interested in music, playing trumpet in a group that fused Mexican and American music. The name of his band? Los Survivors.
He went to Stanford almost by accident, applying at the last minute. He didn’t even know where Stanford was until the morning his family set out to drop him off in Palo Alto. He earned a bachelor’s degree in economics, and then graduated from law school there.
His work as an attorney took him to Massachusetts, then back to California. In the early ’90s, he was elected to state Legislature and then Congress. He built a solid career, step by step, just as his father had built the family home.
When Brown tabbed him to replace Harris, it made sense – Becerra had put in the time and had a reputation as a thoughtful straight-shooter, living up to his parents’ instructions.
“We always told him that he not only had to get good grades, he had to be good,” Maria Teresa said. “It wouldn’t have been good if he had gotten into fights. That would have reflected badly on him, on our family and on our people. We taught him that he had to always present himself well.”
As his mother spoke these words, she did so in his office in downtown Sacramento in July. It was the first time Becerra’s parents had visited him in his new office, and they wore their Sunday best.
“I am in my glory sitting here,” Manuel said.
“To come from Mexico and to be the mother of the attorney general of California?” Maria Teresa said. “Who could have imagined that?”
On that day, Becerra smiled proudly. But later, out of their presence, when the conversation turned to immigration, his expression became serious.
“This is about people doing the right thing,” he said. “It’s about people trying to provide for themselves. We’re the sixth largest economy in the world. Why would we want to disrupt people who are contributing (to it)?
“My dad was born in this country but that’s because his dad was able to come to this country without documents,” he said. “In those days, you didn’t have to worry about that. So is it a matter of luck or fate that my father was born in this country? Who cares? He helped build this country. There is proof everywhere in Sacramento that he did something good.”