California Declares War
By David DeVoss
To hear governor Jerry Brown tell it, California is all that stands between the United States and the ruin of the nation. In his recent “State of the State” address, Brown promised to defy Donald Trump, fashioning it as a great patriotic quest: “When we defend California,” Brown said, “we defend America.”
California’s combative stance toward Washington began as farce the night after Donald Trump’s election when several hundred people paraded around the state capitol in Sacramento waving banners promoting what’s called #Calexit, the agenda of the secessionist Yes California Independence Campaign. By the time the state legislature convened a month later, the laughter had been replaced with angry invective directed at the Trump team’s intention to deport undocumented immigrants, build a border wall, relax environmental safeguards, and gut Obamacare.
Trump’s policies are “cynical, short-sighted and reactionary,” proclaimed Assembly speaker Anthony Rendon immediately after gaveling the session to order. “White nationalists and anti-Semites have no business working in the White House.” He dismissed any notion of reconciliation or compromise: “Californians do not need healing. We need to fight.”
Jerry Brown had already adopted that attitude. In December, he told an American Geophysical Union gathering in San Francisco that California will slash greenhouse emissions even if Washington eases climate regulations. Brown says his state will defy the Trump administration even if that mean losing federal energy grants: “We’ve got a lot of repower. We’ve got the scientists. We’ve got the universities. We have the national labs, and we have the political clout and sophistication for the battle.” And what if the president repurposes the NASA satellites currently used to gather climate data? “California,” Brown said, “will launch its own damn satellite.”
Sacramento’s message to the incoming president: Don’t Mess with California. The fifth largest economy in the world, with a GDP of $2.5 trillion, the state has no little weight to throw around. California is poised to leverage its heft against Donald Trump the way Texas did against Barack Obama—by filing a barrage of lawsuits.
Some of those lawsuits will challenge Trump’s environmental policies. “If the new administration decides to relax the ozone standards, which some states want them to do, that certainly would be litigated,” says David Pettit, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Southern California office.
But the biggest clashes are likely to be over immigration. According to the Pew Research Center, there are just over 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S., about a quarter of them in California. Nearly a third of the 742,000 “Dreamers” protected from deportation by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program call California home. Thousands of undocumented students attend California’s public universities and community colleges, where they can receive financial aid and pay in-state tuition.
The Los Angeles Unified School District has declared its campuses “safe zones” for children traumatized by Trump’s election and says it will not answer inquiries about students’ immigration status. Cal State says university police on its 23 campuses will ignore federal requests for deportation holds. Meanwhile, UC president Janet Napolitano, who was Obama’s Secretary of Homeland Security from 2009 to 2013, says neither she nor her campus police will assist federal immigration agents or participate in any investigations of immigration violations. Says Napolitano: “UC will act upon its deeply held conviction that all members of our community have the right to work, study, and live safely and without fear at all UC locations.”
San Francisco is raising $5 million to defend immigrants in deportation proceedings. Los Angeles is putting together a $10 million legal defense fund, and is hiring an “immigrant advocate” to work with schools and community colleges to prevent deportations.
In Sacramento, where Democrats hold two-thirds of the seats in both houses of the state legislature, one of the first bills introduced at the new session provides government grants to nonprofit organizations defending immigrants facing deportation. A second funds training programs for public defenders who specialize in immigration cases. The first is projected to cost between $10 million and $80 million to implement— money well spent according to Sen. Ricardo Lara, whose parents came to California illegally: “We are going to fight you in this Legislature, we are going to fight you in our courts and yes, we are going to fight you in the streets.”
On occasion, Trump has said that the only illegal immigrants he intends to deport are violent felons. But immigration activists are opposed to deporting even—perhaps especially— violent criminals. “Felons we deport to Central America resume their criminal activity, prompting new waves of refugees to flee north for safety,” says Mexican American Legal Defense Fund president Thomas Saenz. “Why not keep these people in prison here and try to rehabilitate?”
The job of fighting with Republican-controlled Washington will fall in large part to newly appointed state attorney general Xavier Becerra. The former 12-term congressman will have some high- power help in the person of former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder. California has hired Holder on a monthly $25,000 retainer to keep the federal cash coming to sanctuary cities and other state entities if things turn nasty. And that they may.
San Francisco could lose more than $1.2 billion in federal money if Washington punishes sanctuary cities that shield illegal immigrants. To keep its funding coming, San Francisco has already sued the Trump administration in federal district court, arguing that any defunding would violate constitutionally protected states’ rights. The California senate is considering legislation to make the entire state a sanctuary—prohibiting all law enforcement from cooperating with federal immigration officials.
Given their state’s demographic shift, California politicians have no incentive to work with Washington. Those who fail to muster sufficient outrage invite accusations of racism and bigotry. Even as reliable a liberal as Dianne Feinstein has come in for abuse: Some 200 protesters gathered outside her San Francisco home late in January to denounce the senator for voting to approve four of Donald Trump’s cabinet nominees.
Los Angeles remains a city where a Trump bumper sticker is an invitation to have your car keyed. When California state GOP treasurer Mario Guerra was quoted in a Los Angeles Times story about Latinos supporting Trump, “I was called a traitor to my race and worse,” he says.
The demise of the two party system—the state GOP hovers between endangered and extinct—has diminished civic discourse. “California’s political climate is insane,” says Joel Kotkin, executive editor of newgeography.com and a professor of urban studies at Chapman University in Orange County. “Say anything nice about Trump and people look at you as if you have the mark of Cain. The inauguration’s past and still there are demonstrations every day. The only thing this behavior can accomplish is to make Trump look like a victim.”
David DeVoss is editor of the East-West News Service in Los Angeles