Dan Walters

Trumpies trap California politicians on immigration

The war of words between the Trump administration and California politicians about illegal immigration escalated during the weekend – over mostly nothing.

The latest clash began when the Trump Justice Department sent letters to California law enforcement officials, and those in other states, warning that they could lose federal aid to local police if they didn’t cooperate with federal immigration policies.

“A federal, state or local government entity or official may not prohibit or in any way restrict any government entity or official from sending to, or receiving from, the Immigration and Naturalization Service information regarding the citizenship or immigration status, lawful or unlawful, of any individual,” the letters said.

The Justice Department’s announcement of the blandly worded letters lit a rhetorical fuse by declaring, “Many of these jurisdictions are also crumbling under the weight of illegal immigration and violent crime,” and citing, among other examples, the recent arrest of 11 members of the of the MS-13 Salvadoran street gang in Santa Cruz.

Those loaded words set a political trap for California politicians – luring them into seemingly including criminals in their protective umbrella.

Attorney General Xavier Becerra called it “fear-mongering and falsehoods,” and said crackdowns on undocumented immigrants are “reckless and jeopardize public safety.”

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León ramped it up a bit more, declaring, “It has become abundantly clear that Attorney General (Jeff) Sessions and the Trump administration are basing their law enforcement policies on principles of white supremacy – not American values.”

The trap became more apparent Sunday when Sessions and Becerra appeared separately on ABC-TV’s “This Week” public affairs show.

“It’s nothing reckless,” Sessions said. “It’s nothing extreme about saying if someone comes through our country unlawfully and commits a crime, another crime in our country, they should be deported. That’s what the law says.”

Overwhelmingly, Americans would support that view. But Becerra insisted that noncooperation with immigration authorities is exercising California’s constitutional “right to decide how to do public safety.”

Not exactly, if you look past the heated rhetoric.

Fundamentally, federal law trumps state law when it comes to immigration, and the letters reminded officials they must soon certify compliance with their federal grant contracts – a deadline, interestingly enough, set by the Obama administration.

Moreover, the amounts at risk are minuscule – in California’s case maybe $20 million divvied up among dozens of cities and counties.

California’s two-plus million undocumented immigrants are overwhelmingly peaceful and productive members of society and they, the state and the nation need immigration reform and pathways to citizenship.

The eagerness of both sides to trade fusillades of overheated rhetoric on even a minor ministerial issue indicates that they will continue to escalate and in doing so, they undermine that larger cause.