State Sen. Kevin de León took a subtle shot at Sen. Dianne Feinstein as he lobbied on Capitol Hill on Tuesday for protections for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children known as “Dreamers.”
“Whether through incompetence or intolerance, we delay justice,” de León said at a press conference in Washington. “Time and time again, hardliners across the street – in Congress and the White House – find any possible excuse to delay a solution.”
In an interview this week he was more direct, criticizing Feinstein for her centrist approach on immigration and suggested stances she’s taken on the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals program have contributed to the Republican-Democratic stalemate in Congress.
“Until recently, her natural inclination is to be anti-immigrant. She switches now because she has a primary challenge,” said de León, who is mounting a challenge against the five-term incumbent. “She represents California, not Arkansas.”
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Democrats, chief among them Feinstein, have called on Congress and the president to include as part of a budget deal protections for Dreamers. She is pushing for passage of the Dream Act, a bipartisan proposal that would grant permanent residency to the 800,000 undocumented immigrants brought to the country illegally as children and create a pathway to citizenship for additional immigrants who call the U.S. home.
But de León, who will step down from his Senate leadership post in March, argues that Feinstein has been slow to act on immigration, an issue he expects to work to his benefit in the 2018 U.S. Senate race. This year is expected to draw record turnout among Latinos in a primary contest during a gubernatorial election year. Analysts are already seeing evidence: 2017 produced record Latino voter registration in California, where they make up 38 percent of the population.
Latinos are running for at least six major statewide offices, including de León for U.S. Senate, Antonio Villaraigosa for governor, Xavier Becerra for attorney general and Ricardo Lara for insurance commissioner.
That could help de León, who faces his own challenges with fundraising, name recognition and a sexual harassment scandal in the Capitol.
“Two of those people – Villaraigosa and de León – have already proven to get higher Latino turnout, and they’re both on the June ballot,” said Mike Madrid, a Republican political strategist based in Sacramento and a consultant for Villaraigosa’s gubernatorial run. “Then there’s (Donald) Trump, who is a big motivating factor.”
“That negative push has always catalyzed and characterized explosions in Latino activism and Latino turnout – it happened in the mid-1990s and it happened in 2016. My guess is it’s going to be as big or bigger in 2018,” added Madrid, who has studied Latino voter participation. “People of color are already showing up in record numbers, in places like Virginia and Alabama.”
Feinstein has long taken a more moderate position on immigration than some members of her own party.
Videos have surfaced on social media, with both right- and left-wing activists attacking positions she’s taken and comments she has made in her early career.
The anti-immigration group Federation for American Immigration Reform posted a video on Twitter last year from 1994, when Feinstein appeared on national television calling for congressional action on immigration, saying, “I think we can enforce our borders. I think we should enforce our borders. To have a situation where 40 percent of the babies born on Medicaid in California today are born of illegal immigrants creates a very real problem for the state which is in deficit ... to have 17 percent of our prison population at a cost of $300 million a year be illegal immigrants who come here and commit felonies – that’s not what this nation is all about.”
A leftist online publication shared the same video, saying in the clip she “is sounding like President Donald Trump, referring to illegal immigration as one of the biggest unfunded mandates that is costing states dearly.”
That year, she called for federal legislation to “stop illegal immigration by enforcing our borders,” and by reducing “incentives, such as federal benefits and assistance available to illegal immigrants so fewer people attempt to come here illegally,” according to a June 1994 speech Feinstein gave to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The “sheer numbers of illegal immigrants are having an impact on classroom size, the jobs place and in housing availability,” she said at the time. “The inability to enforce our borders and stop illegal immigration is resulting in rising tension and increasing resentment against both legal and illegal immigrants. And it is the responsibility of this Congress to act.”
It was the year of Proposition 187, the 1994 ballot initiative that sought to cut health care, education and other benefits for undocumented immigrants. Feinstein opposed the measure, but her critics say she took a position too late, waiting until late October in a re-election year before coming out against it. In 1995, Feinstein advocated for a national identification card that could be equipped with a magnetic chip that could contain individual fingerprints and, perhaps, retina scans. She was also among Senate Democrats to vote in 2006 for a border security bill allowing construction of a fence between the U.S. and Mexico.
“She spent much of her early political career using the same anti-immigrant rhetoric that we have come to expect from President Trump,” de León said in an interview. “It sounds very much like Donald Trump today because she has always had a very anti-immigration position, which runs contrary to the values of California today.”
Feinstein, through her longtime campaign consultant Bill Carrick, pushed back.
“She’s got a pretty damn good record on immigration,” Carrick said. He noted decades of legislative actions on immigration, touting her support of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006, which called for stronger border security, an earned pathway to citizenship and reductions to the visa backlog. It sought to deter employers from hiring immigrants unauthorized to work in the U.S. She also supported the 2010 Dream Act and took action to prevent an immigration crackdown on an Oakland family, calling the deportation of Maria and Eusebio Sanchez to Mexico “shameful.”
Carrick noted the issue of immigration was very different in the 1990s than today.
“There was this tipping point when Prop 187 was put on the ballot ... there were people who advised her that if she came out against it, she was going to lose,” he said. “And it did hurt her badly ... she only won by two points. She struggled only in the sense that she was well aware it was going to be a problem politically. She never struggled with where she was going to come down, that she was going to oppose it.”
To de León, the first Latino leader of the state Senate in more than a century, the issue is deeply personal. Now 51, he got his start in politics as a young community organizer. He helped mobilize the state’s largest protest, in Los Angeles, against Proposition 187.
“I cut my teeth politically organizing against Prop 187 because my values were offended,” de León said. “Politicians – both Republicans and Democrats – were scapegoating immigrants for every political and social and economic ill.”
The issue motivated Latinos in California like never before.
“We saw this spike in activism with more Latino candidates running, higher registration and turnout in the mid- to late-1990s – this kind of defining era and the first time the Latino community really felt it was under attack,” Madrid said. “We’re seeing the same activism today. The Latino vote has always been stimulated to dramatic increases in turnout when they see an existential threat to the community, and that has always galvanized largely on the issue of immigration.”
Though California voters passed Proposition 187, federal courts later struck down the law, ruling it unconstitutional. Years later, de León authored a bill removing the proposition’s language from the books. Gov. Jerry Brown signed it in 2014.
Today, he has called on Congress, including Feinstein, to force a government shutdown if a deal can’t be reached on protections for Dreamers. Last month, he said Feinstein was “AWOL” on “standing up and supporting them.”
The next day, Feinstein announced she would not vote to extend government funding without support for DACA.
“I’ve been a vocal supporter of young people protected by DACA since President Obama created the program in 2012 ... It’s absolutely unconscionable that Republicans are leaving these items out of their bill to fund the government.” Previously, she’d voiced concern about the federal program being “on shaky legal ground,” and said Congress should instead help those known as Dreamers by passing a “clean” Dream Act, without bowing to Republican demands and handing Trump a legislative victory in approving funding for a U.S.-Mexico border wall.
De León thinks his public comments forced Feinstein to move to the left on the issue.
De León is also the author of the 2017 state law that declared California a sanctuary state for undocumented immigrants. He pushed for expansion of health care for those here illegally, for statewide legal assistance for the undocumented and for the 2015 state law allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses.
“We need sensible immigration reform,” de León said. “I believe if you obey our laws, you pay your taxes, you swear you allegiance to the red, white and blue, you should have the opportunity to become a full-fledged American.”
Whether he can gain traction against a strong incumbent, especially in an election year where turnout is expected to be lower than presidential cycles, remains an open question.
“That population shift is going to be felt electorally, over time,” said Darry Sragow, publisher of the nonpartisan California Target Book. “The voter registration trend is clear. But at the end of the day, it’s tough to predict what the actual turnout of what those registered and eligible voters will be.”