California Attorney General Xavier Becerra has forcefully criticized President Donald Trump’s executive actions calling for a widespread crackdown on undocumented immigrants and barring travel to the United States from predominantly Muslim countries in Africa and the Middle East.
Political tough talk, positioning the state as a leader in the resistance to the Trump administration, has dominated Becerra’s short tenure since the former Democratic congressman assumed the role in late January.
But in office, Becerra has taken more measured approach.
In late January, Washington – not California – was the first state to sue the federal government over Trump’s initial travel ban targeting refugees from seven majority-Muslim countries, action that led Seattle Judge James Robart to halt its implementation around the country.
It took Becerra until mid-March – more than six weeks after the Washington lawsuit was filed and a month after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco refused to reinstate the initial order – to add California to the lawsuit as a plaintiff.
In addition to Washington, the states of Minnesota, Hawaii and Maryland were ahead of California in the collective legal battle to prevent Trump’s freeze on refugees and travel from majority-Muslim nations – revised earlier this month to include Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, Libya and Syria – to resume.
Federal courts in both lawsuits blocked Trump’s efforts, decisions he has called “unprecedented judicial overreach.”
Becerra’s delayed actions suggest California may not be poised to lead the immigration battle despite the heated rhetoric from top state Democratic leaders. Behind the scenes, some Democrats grumble that he isn’t fighting hard enough in the courts.
In an interview, Becerra suggested the larger strategy is to mount a broad, multistate legal challenge. He said he’s met numerous times with other attorneys general leading the charge.
“I see it as a team sport,” he said, acknowledging that the approach has been cautious.
“In terms of the travel ban, it was a matter of trying to make sure we could make a good case that it was unconstitutional and it violated federal law,” Becerra said. “A number of attorneys general have been in conversations, since before Trump even took office, about doing everything possible to protect the rights of all people. It’d be a very lonely place if California was the only state to demonstrate a commitment to protecting its residents from these unconstitutional attacks.”
Becerra, who stepped down from Congress after 24 years to serve as the state’s top cop, is the first Latino in California history to head the state’s Department of Justice.
Since Trump took office in January, Becerra has used public statements and friend-of-the-court briefs to denounce executive orders he says illegally and unfairly target undocumented immigrants and Muslims.
The same day he filed suit against the federal government, on March 13, he issued a friend-of-the-court brief in a parallel lawsuit brought by Hawaii, saying: “Liberty and democracy are not free. As the latest iteration of the Trump Muslim travel ban illustrates, those cherished values can be hijacked unless we are vigilant and steadfast. That’s what we intend to be.”
“Right now, he’s being careful,” said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College. “A good lawyer doesn’t rush into a lawsuit, and he’s still settling into the job. As far as legal fights, this is just the first inning in a long game where we could quite possibly see further executive actions on which he would be able to show leadership on. So it’s early.”
Becerra’s actions in the high-profile immigration cases also have implications for his effort to get elected next year. It would be his first run for the statewide office after his appointment by Gov. Jerry Brown to succeed Sen. Kamala Harris, the former state attorney general.
“I think if he mounts an effective legal challenge, it will solidify him in the position,” Pitney said. “You don’t want to mess up the legal case. The Trump White House shows what happens when you rush into something, and the legal flaws that give rise to political pushback.
“It’s a fight that takes place on many fronts,” he added. “One front is rhetorical, another is legal and substantive, and they reinforce each other.”
According to the lawsuit in the Washington case, California is home to more than 10 million immigrants and took in nearly 8,000 refugees last year. The suit argues that the state’s workforce will be severely harmed by Trump’s actions, dealing a heavy blow to the overall economy.
The ban will “will harm California by reducing investment in industry … and decreasing travel by students, scholars and tourists. These outcomes will harm California’s economy as a whole and will decrease state tax and other revenues,” the lawsuit said, adding that it’s “also fundamentally inconsistent with and undermines California’s commitment to diversity and nondiscrimination.”
Becerra said his work has only just begun. Other executive actions Trump has taken – targeting undocumented immigrants for deportation, for example – are equally important, he said.
Deportations under Trump’s administration have escalated not due to new policies or enforcement of executive actions but due to his words, said Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Los Angeles-based Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a legal and advocacy nonprofit for the Latino community.
“California has made commitments to protect its residents, but I don’t think it has taken on this mantle of political resister to the Trump administration, like what we saw with Texas under the Obama administration,” Saenz said. “We don’t really know what’s changed since Obama, with a great deal of accuracy. The major change is the message that has gone out to immigration and border control agents that they can do things that they may have felt more constrained to do under Obama.
“It’s not to say there weren’t problems under Obama – there were – but Trump is scaring people to withdraw from society and remove themselves from the country,” he added. “We’ve seen more collateral arrests and deportations.”
Saenz said Becerra has positioned California to play a vital role in shielding immigrants from more harsh federal actions, including those that seek increased deportations.
“California can and must play an important role in protecting its populace from willy-nilly enforcement by Trump’s administration and immigration agents who feel more free to do what they want,” he said. “And Attorney General Becerra has a very important role in helping people understand their rights, know that they shouldn’t waive their rights and California will support the exercise of those rights. Part of that is going to court.”
Becerra issued another friend-of-the-court brief last week, this time supporting a lawsuit brought against the federal government by Santa Clara County challenging Trump’s executive order targeting “sanctuary jurisdictions.”
“Any attempt by Donald Trump to hijack state and local resources to do the Trump Administration’s bidding raises serious constitutional questions and threatens the safety of our communities,” Becerra said in the brief. “California has a sovereign right and responsibility to protect the safety and the constitutional rights of its residents, and that is what we will continue to do.”
Republican state Sen. Joel Anderson strongly criticized Becerra’s early moves in office, including his rhetoric about shielding undocumented people from a widespread immigration crackdown and California joining in the legal fight against Trump’s travel ban.
“There’s nothing wrong with extreme vetting to ensure the safety of the American people … these are not bans for life,” Anderson said. “We should be making it easier for (Immnigrations and Customs Enforcement) agents to go after felons … we should be turning them over with bows on their heads. This is all about political grandstanding, not about protecting our citizens.”
Anderson also rebuked Democrats in the Legislature, who hired former U.S. Attorney Eric Holder in January to help take on the Trump administration. Anderson opposes a state law proposed by Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León to disallow state and local law enforcement agencies from assisting federal immigration agents, effectively making California a “sanctuary” state.
“All of this focus on fighting Trump, and we’re not even taking care of our own citizens,” Anderson said. “They’re drunk on power and chasing all this stuff when we should be focusing on our roads, infrastructure, dams.”
In the interview, Becerra dismissed the idea that he isn’t prepared to mount a legal fight, when necessary.
“I think you’re going to see more and more of a clear sign that we will not tolerate excesses by any government, let alone our own government,” he said. “With the Muslim travel bans and the deportations … I want to make clear we’re going to stand up for the rights of our people. We’re ready … including pursuing litigation if necessary, but I don’t think this should be done by just one state.”
Angela Hart: 916-326-5528, @ahartreports