California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said Tuesday he will challenge President Donald Trump’s widely disputed executive order blocking travel to the United States by refugees and people from seven predominantly Muslim countries in the Middle East and Africa.
In a telephone interview, Becerra said Trump’s move was a constitutional overreach and suggested his office is closer to initiating legal action against the federal government, saying broadly that “legal action has been taken, legal action will be taken and legal measures will be instituted, not just in California but I think in many parts of the country to try to address the unconstitutionality of the executive orders.”
Becerra, in office just a week, is seen as California’s top official to lead the state’s resistance to Trump and his administration. He has vowed to defend California’s protections that shield undocumented immigrants from mass deportation, as well as policies aimed at combating climate change and expanding health care access for millions of residents.
His comments on the travel and refugee ban followed a weekend of widespread confusion and anger at airports across the country. Trump contends it targets people who “intend to commit terrorist attacks in the United States” and is designed to “prevent the admission of foreign nationals who intend to exploit the United States immigration laws for malevolent purposes.”
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The timing of a potential lawsuit or other action remains unclear, but Becerra suggested a legal fight is coming.
“We will do everything we can with the authority I have to make sure we protect the people of California,” he said, days after a weekend meeting in Florida with 16 state attorneys general from across the country to discuss legal strategy. “It’s a matter of, in some cases, initiating action and in some cases collaborating with others. ... We want to make sure we can do it with a successful outcome.”
Becerra said he and other Department of Justice officials are exploring “every legal option” to fight the executive order, which he believes is discriminatory based on freedom of religion.
Trump’s actions temporarily suspended refugee admissions to the U.S. indefinitely banned Syrian refugees and temporarily halted travel from seven counties – Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen.
“There is no doubt, by limiting and banning people based on their faith and religion, that Donald Trump has violated, first and foremost, the First Amendment. ... Basic history or a simple reading of the United States Constitution should have told Donald Trump and his closest advisers that the path they were embarking on was not only unconstitutional, but a vestige of the past,” Becerra said. “Here’s the rub – executive orders do not change existing law, executive orders cannot contradict existing law and they can be challenged.”
Trump and his allies have argued that the order is not a Muslim ban and does not single out other Muslim-majority countries in and surrounding the region of the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Afghanistan.
Becerra disagrees: “He continues to misrepresent what the executive order does, saying it … only affects a fraction of the people. The Constitution doesn’t (apply to) 97 or 98 percent of people, and the other 2 percent can be discriminated against.”
He noted that Sally Yates, who until late Monday served as acting U.S. attorney general under Trump before she was fired, refused to defend the order because she believed it was without legal merit.
Washington state’s attorney general became the first this week to declare plans to file a lawsuit against Trump. San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court on Tuesday challenging Trump’s executive order that directs the federal government to withhold grants and other funding from jurisdictions considered sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants that limit cooperation with immigration authorities.
Without providing specifics, Becerra said he was willing to wage the war with unconventional tactics.
“There are no rules with Donald Trump. Even if there were, he’d sucker punch you below the belt, so if you’re going to play by the rules, you’re already behind the game in the way this administration plays,” Becerra said. “I’m not interested in the president of the United States sucker punching the people of California. That’s how I feel, so that’s how I’ll act. We have an understanding that we’re dealing with someone who doesn’t play by the rules.”