California Democrats blistered President Donald Trump and vowed swift action in response to his decision Tuesday to phase out legal protections for more than 200,000 young people living in the state who came here illegally.
Attorney General Xavier Becerra said he is readying a lawsuit against the Trump administration, while legislative leaders are discussing further measures to shield the unauthorized immigrants from deportation. Their legal and legislative routes to thwarting the Republican president over a federal program remain cloudy, however.
Trump’s action shifts to Congress an immigration policy that originally grew out of its inability to act on broader reforms. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, was created under President Barack Obama. It protects certain immigrants known as “Dreamers” who entered the U.S. as minors – including many who were too young to make that decision themselves – and allows them to become eligible for work permits. California in recent years has moved on a number of related fronts and was already considering legislation to create a “sanctuary state” that could help protect them and others from deportation.
On Tuesday, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, a Democrat from Paramount, pledged the Democratic-controlled Legislature will do everything it can through local governments, universities and schools “to keep these young people secure, safe, and here where they belong.”
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Eloy Ortiz Oakley, the Chancellor of California Community Colleges, issued a message to “DACA Dreamers” promising to remain open to them: “We will push Congress. We will support you. You belong here!” Oakley said.
Becerra, speaking with reporters at a hastily called news conference in Sacramento, did not delve into the specific legal arguments he might rely on. One avenue could stem from his belief that it is unconstitutional to ask thousands of people to come forward, pay fees and apply for the DACA program, and then unceremoniously rescind it.
“We believe the Trump administration has violated the Constitution, federal law, and certainly we believe wholeheartedly the Trump administration has ignored the American people,” Becerra said, adding he would sue “when it seems appropriate.” He remains in conversations with other attorneys general on “how to best deploy our resources and work together.”
Nancy McFadden, a top aide to Gov. Jerry Brown, said in a statement that the governor stands with Becerra “as he takes our fight to court to defend the Dreamers.”
Senate leader Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, whose office has contracted with former Attorney General Eric Holder, said he was separately looking at areas of the law to pursue.
On the legislative front, Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, said his Senate Bill 573 could help DACA recipients continue their studies at California universities. The bill allows colleges to develop programs for students to work volunteer hours in exchange for grants, fee waivers or reimbursement for their educational expenses.
Gabriel J. Chin, a law professor at the University of California, Davis, said states are empowered to decide certain benefits for immigrants and how much they cooperate with federal immigration officials. Chin said he doesn’t expect DACA recipients to be a high priority for removal and predicts the program’s end would have more impact on their ability to request – and receive – work authorization from the government.
Despite past discussions about state-level temporary worker programs, such policies require congressional authorization, Chin said.
“The state can’t do anything about that at the moment,” he said.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in his remarks Tuesday, described DACA as an unlawful overreach by Obama and argued he could not defend it. Sessions further contended that DACA youth were taking the jobs of American-born workers. He mentioned an unspecified “wind-down period” to give Congress time to take action if it chooses – previously characterized as six months.
Reaction to the Trump administration’s decision in the Golden State, home to more than a quarter of the nation’s nearly 800,000 DACA recipients, poured in from all corners – providing ammunition for a new generation of Democrats, including those lining up to succeed Brown in next year’s governor’s race. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom blasted Trump’s decision as “a cruel and pointless move by a president who has no soul,” while Treasurer John Chiang said he won’t “turn my back on the DREAMers, or be on the side of division and hate.”
Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was organizing DACA supporters through an online petition. “If we can prevail, and protect these young Americans, we will show the nation and the world that America is still the land of freedom, equality and equal opportunity,” he said.
The pending repeal also was lambasted by technology giants in Silicon Valley, labor unions in Los Angeles and by the state’s contingent of Catholic bishops, which in a statement underscored their belief that young immigrants and their families “are a critical part of California’s future vitality.”
“We will continue to believe in them, pray for them and work with them for a society where all God’s children may enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” the bishops said.
Allan Zaremberg, president and chief executive of the California Chamber of Commerce, reiterated the state and national organization’s support for comprehensive immigration reform.
U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris, Democrats from California, said preserving the intent of the program, started five years ago by Obama after repeated congressional false starts on immigration, is a top priority.
They urged passage of the Dream Act of 2017, a bill by Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham and Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin to provide a path to citizenship for DACA recipients.
“Now more than ever, it is time we roll up our sleeves and stand with these young people who contribute to our community and our economy,” Harris said, imploring Republicans to allow a vote. “We are better than this.”
Many California Republicans, while split on the constitutionality of the program, said they favor dealing with the issue once and for all, amid fears that leaving it to linger too long could become an election-year liability in a largely Democratic state.
Republican Rep. Mimi Walters of Laguna Niguel called it “unjust to punish them for the actions of their parents,” while state Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford, said it was time for both parties in Washington to “get off their posteriors and enact comprehensive immigration reform.”
Chad Mayes, the outgoing Republican Assembly leader, added that if the decision doesn’t force Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform, “I don’t know what will.”
“Much like the children of the immigrants who built this country, these children followed their parents to America and to send them home would mean sending them to a country they’ve never known,” Mayes said. “These are our neighbors. They attend our schools, they speak English, they pay taxes and they played by the rules.
Mayes added: “America should not be in the business of deporting children who came to this country through no fault of their own.”