At a recent appearance before the Sacramento Press Club, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra defined his job in simple terms: “Anywhere I have jurisdiction to advance or protect the interests of the people of the state of California, you’ll see me there.”
Judging by his activities this year, protecting the rights of Californians entails staunch resistance to the federal government.
Are immigrants themselves tuned in? And, more importantly, do Becerra’s efforts make them feel any safer in the age of Trump?
As California’s top legal official, he’s sparred constantly with the Trump administration in the courts, filing suits against the federal government over various issues including health care, immigration, environmental protections, and energy. At one point in his May 15 Press Club talk, Becerra listed legal actions his team has taken against the White House, an exercise that lasted several minutes even though he refrained from naming them all.
“You’ve got to get in the way,” he said.
The issue over which Mr. Becerra has gotten in President Trump’s way the most has been immigration. The son of Mexican immigrants, Mr. Becerra has made opposing Mr. Trump’s travel bans and threats to deny federal funding to sanctuary cities the focus of his office — he has moved lawyers from his civil rights and environmental departments to immigration for extra firepower, and has allowed immigration to drag him beyond the limits he himself described for his job. “We have no jurisdiction over immigration,” said Mr. Becerra in reference to national immigration policy, “but my first month, that’s mostly what we did.”
The immigration fight has been the story of Mr. Becerra’s young career as attorney general. But are immigrants themselves tuned in? And, more importantly, do his efforts make them feel any safer in the age of Trump?
Realino is a 16-year-old high school student in Sacramento and the son of undocumented immigrants from central Mexico (only his first name will be used due to the sensitivity of the subject). He said the election of Donald Trump made the reality he and his family face every day — that they might be split up by deportation — seem much more real. “It’s a struggle even more now,” he said, because his parents “don’t know if one day they’re going to wake up and not be able to go to work; just go back to Mexico.”
“It’s better to be here because there is less of a chance of being deported.” — Karen
However, Realino said that his parents watch the news avidly, and are reassured by the work of Mr. Becerra and others who stand up for immigrant rights. “They like that somebody’s actually standing up for them. For a long time, they haven’t had a voice, so now that somebody’s standing up they feel more comfortable.”
Seventeen-year-old Karen (pronounced “cah-ren”), another local high school student, arrived in the US in November of last year, shortly after the election of Donald Trump. She came by foot, all the way from Honduras, and is undocumented.
Karen feels vulnerable: she’s afraid to use public transportation or to travel too far outside of Sacramento. President Trump’s rhetoric has heightened her fears. “The things he says affect me a lot, because he’s the president,” she said in Spanish. “Sometimes they don’t investigate things properly, and send back innocents … He’s a racist; he doesn’t want us.”
Like Realino, Karen thinks California is a good state for undocumented immigrants to live in. However, her comfort is derived from the attitude of the greater community towards immigrants, not from local government. She does not know who Xavier Becerra is. But she does recognize that Californians are largely accepting of immigrants, and thus feels she wouldn’t be turned over to immigration authorities. “It’s better to be here because there is less of a chance of being deported,” she said. “The immigrants here receive lots of support.”
“When you’re coming to the United States, a lot of it is just ‘Where can I sleep? And where can I get a job?’” — Geraldine Castañeda
Karen also credits the community for her ability to enroll in high school, and perhaps pursue a higher education. “The schools want immigrants, but in other parts maybe it wouldn’t be like this,” she said.
Geraldine Castañeda is a senior at Sacramento’s McClatchy High School who entered the US legally from Mexico at age four. For her senior project, she conducted interviews with other immigrant students and compiled them into a magazine.
She said that the undocumented immigrants she knows from her personal life and those she spoke with for her project generally see California as a desirable location within the US — but not because of California’s immigrant-friendly state government, as language barriers make the intricacies of policy hard to follow. “Most immigrants … probably aren’t speaking English here,” she said. “The level of understanding of government isn’t as deep.”
Instead, Ms. Castañeda believes California’s appeal to undocumented immigrants is purely economic. “When you’re coming to the United States, a lot of it is just ‘Where can I sleep? And where can I get a job?’”
Indeed, the economy factored into all three students’ arguments for California as a good place for immigrants. Though he maintains that his family is heartened by local politicians’ advocacy for people like them, Realino mentioned “being able to work in places that other states wouldn’t allow” as an opportunity he believes California has provided his parents. His father is a construction worker and his mother is employed at a restaurant.
Karen said good job prospects motivated her to make her transnational journey in the first place. “I came for a better future,” she said.
She chose California.
Ed’s Note: Kainoa Lowman is a student at McClatchy High School in Sacramento