In Sacramento, the Spanish-language response to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech on Tuesday was somewhat lost in translation.
State Attorney General Xavier Becerra wasn’t muddled or unclear while speaking on the campus of C.K. McClatchy High School, his alma mater. But Becerra had a far more daunting goal to achieve in his speech than, say, former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who responded to Trump in English at the same time Becerra spoke in Español on Spanish language networks.
Becerra took on the responsibility to push back on Trump’s ethnically divisive campaign for a wall on America’s southern border. He had to counter the caustic rhetoric and overheated falsehoods Trump that has employed while attempting to sell his border wall.
Becerra spoke on TV and before a small group of about 50 students, parents and teachers seated at round tables scattered in the school’s library. Here he missed an opportunity to strike hard against the president’s immigration rhetoric not only for the national audience, but the young high school students he spotlighted, calling them “the future leaders of our country – McClatchy students –where I also studied, but about four decades ago.”
Trump spoke on that larger stage, before both houses of Congress, and again promoted the idea that national security is threatened by lawlessness at the U.S.-Mexico border.
He said El Paso, Texas, had high rates of violent crime until a wall was built on its border with Mexico, a statement New York Times fact checkers rated as false. Trump said “large, organized caravans (of immigrants from Latin America) were on the march to the United States,” a statement the Times labeled as exaggerated.
The President also again cited individual cases of immigrants committing crimes and tried to sell tiny sample sizes of crime as examples of an epidemic. In Sacramento, we’ve seen how Trump’s constant barrage of Mexico-baiting has inspired acts of intolerance in public spaces.
Just last week, a group of men wearing Trump gear menaced the Latino employees at La Cosecha, a Mexican restaurant in Cesar Chavez Plaza. The Trump followers berated employees who were either U.S. born or lawfully employed. They saw fit harangue Latino people who fit a profile. And some of the trolls attacking La Cosecha have not stopped, have continued to post caustic comments on social media about a restaurant owned and operated by Ernesto Delgado – who was raised in Napa and graduated from Sacramento State.
These acts are the definition of bigotry. Similar acts have been repeated across the country because Trump has weaponized immigration as his go-to issue to fire up his base no matter the damage the rhetoric causes.
Here, Becerra could have made a forceful statement to the students and nation. Here, he could have confronted Trump’s bigotry directly and aggressively.
But he really didn’t.
This AG has filed more than 40 lawsuits against the Trump administration, so he’s not a shrinking violet. But in public, before an audience large and small, Becerra is conservative by nature. He never has a hair out of place and wears the most finely starched clothes in Sacramento.
Becerra chose to give a version of the old “we’re a nation of immigrants,” speech that so many pols give.
“I am the son of working immigrants and the first in my family to walk through the doors of a university, and through the doors of opportunity,” he said.
Becerra held himself up as an example of what can happen when immigrants are encouraged to strive. His father Manuel helped build freeway overpasses in Sacramento, saw “No Mexicans allowed signs” as a youth in Los Angeles and now his son is the state Attorney General rebutting the President of the United States. It’s a great story.
But Becerra’s post-speech comments – ones that were not televised – struck closer to addressing the complexities and contradictions of immigration.
When a young McClatchy student, who is Latino and conservative, questioned Becerra why he was suing the Trump administration over the denial of political asylum for people fleeing gang violence in Latin American countries, Becerra didn’t flinch. He told the student that his issue with Trump’s administration on asylum was that immigrants who had a legal right to seek asylum were being denied their rights to have their cases heard.
But Becerra also said that if immigrants got their days in court but were found to fall short of qualifying for asylum, the federal government had every right to remove them. Some immigrant rights activists might take issue with him over such a statement, but his job is to enforce the law. The U.S. has very narrow definitions that dictate who qualifies for asylum.
Student Jedidiah Reyna, a 16-year-old sophomore, thanked Becerra for giving such an important speech at his school. He also told Becerra that he saw no reason why people couldn’t be civil when disagreeing on immigration.
But one wonders what might have happened if Becerra had tried to take on the complexities of immigration in his speech. Reyna told me that his parents were American-born but that his grandparents came from Mexico. When I asked if he knew if they came to the U.S. with proper documentation, he said he didn’t.
Does the young student have a surprise lurking in his family that he doesn’t know about? If he does, he might have more in common with the immigrants caught in Trump’s cross hairs than he realizes.
While Trump focuses on the relative few who have committed high-profile crimes in the U.S., the vast majority of Latin American immigrants come to the U.S. to work.
They perform jobs that Americans don’t want to do. Americans can have border security while acknowledging that states such as California depend on immigrant labor. Why not legalize those immigrants who have lived in America for years while focusing enforcement efforts on those immigrants who kill or rob or sell drugs?
By conflating immigrants, Trump overstates the problem and encourages profiling of Latin American people, as we saw at La Cosecha last week. Maybe if Becerra had illustrated these complexities, he might have given young Jedidiah Reyna (known as Jedi to his friends) more to think about.
It wasn’t a total loss. The largely Spanish speaking crowd at McClatchy heard Becerra’s calls for them to vote in larger numbers to make change. But immigration is a cultural war that requires straight talk to change minds.
Trump’s border fight has become a standoff where people of conscience need to push back against bigotry. Until discrimination is uncoupled from immigration, America will continue to reject its history as a country built by immigrants.
Hopefully, Becerra, or someone, will take up the challenge to tackle the issue head on.