The symbolism was hard to miss.
After Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced on Tuesday that the Trump administration was ending DACA — the Obama-era program that protects nearly 800,000 young immigrants from deportation — California's response came from a trio of top Democratic leaders who are the sons of immigrants.
It is hard to conjure up a sharper contrast than that of Sessions, an entrenched Republican foe of the program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, and the three California officials of Mexican heritage — Attorney General Xavier Becerra, Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de León and Secretary of State Alex Padilla — who stood shoulder to shoulder at a press conference in Sacramento to challenge Trump's decision.
It's worth mentioning that Gov. Jerry Brown was unavailable (he was traveling to an energy summit in Russia). But in his absence it was impossible not to notice that the officials issuing the pledge to protect the estimated 240,000 DACA recipients in California were men of humble origins born to immigrant parents, the first in their families to graduate from college and the first Latinos in state history to hold their high positions (or in Sen. de León's case, the first in 130 years).
If any lingering ambiguity remained, Becerra made the following remarks in Spanish at the press conference:
“We’re here as leaders of the state of California to say that it’s important — as state leaders but also as the sons of immigrants — to put ourselves at the head of the struggle for all of the young people who took the risk to apply for the program and services of DACA. To those who took the risk, we want to tell them that it’s important they know that the leaders of this state are with them. And we are going to do everything possible to defend them in court and before the public.”
Since the days of Proposition 187, a ballot measure spearheaded by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson in 1994 that barred undocumented residents from non-emergency public services, California has swung in the opposite direction, becoming perhaps the most progressive state in the country when it comes to immigrants' rights.
These days, as the goal of comprehensive immigration reform proves ever more elusive on Capitol Hill, deep-blue California has extended concrete benefits and protections to its estimated 2.35 million undocumented residents. California has by far the largest population of undocumented immigrants of any U.S. state, according to data compiled by the Pew Research Center. And unlike in many other states, those undocumented residents are eligible for in-state college tuition, state financial aid, driver's licenses and access to Medi-Cal.
The question now for DACA recipients (aka “dreamers”) in California — including 100,000 in L.A. — is what the state might be prepared to do as the Trump administration makes good on the campaign promise to strip them of their protections and implement a policy where anyone living in the country without papers is a target for arrest and deportation.
In the long term, state leaders are preparing legislation that could complicate efforts by the Trump administration to deport undocumented residents. Most notably, de León's office is in negotiations with Gov. Brown over possible amendments to a bill passed by the Assembly that would limit the ability of local police and sheriffs to hold, question or arrest immigrants who are in the country illegally. If passed, the California Values Act, or SB 54, would convert California into what is widely being called the nation's first sanctuary state for undocumented immigrants.
Dan Reeves, chief of staff in de León's office, told the Weekly he expects a decision by Sept. 7, the deadline to amend bills in the Assembly.
In the short term, California leaders say they are prepared to sue to preserve DACA, a move that could delay the cancellation of the program (which is set to end six months from now, per Trump's order). Becerra said at the press conference that his office is examining — in consultation with attorneys general from other states — possible violations of the right to due process in eliminating DACA benefits, as well as the possible discriminatory targeting of DACA recipients.
There already has been a lawsuit filed in New York to challenge the repeal of of DACA. If the court allows the suit, known as Batalla Vidal v. Baran, to move forward, it could become a class-action case that would apply to all DACA recipients, including those in California, according to Sameer Ahmed, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California. “Obviously we are following that lawsuit closely and will look to cooperate with them and help identify individuals in California that it would affect,” Ahmed says.
Similarly, Becerra and his counterparts in New York and Washington state are considering a lawsuit arguing that the economic benefits that DACA has provided to the states cannot be taken away arbitrarily.
The end of DACA also could take a toll on California's university system, which enrolls tens of thousands of dreamers. California education leaders are looking for ways to protect college students covered by DACA. The L.A. Times reports that a proposal by state Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) would provide grants, fee waivers or reimbursements to undocumented students at California community colleges and state universities in exchange for service in their school or community.
But there might be little the state can do to offset the damage of students no longer being able to work in the country legally, following the end of DACA.
“For any person in this country higher education is a huge investment — a financial investment and an investment of time,” says Katharine Gin, executive director of Educators for Fair Consideration, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of undocumented youth. “Now that it's not clear that people are going to be able to work legally it puts the value of that investment in question for many people.
“I think many will continue to pursue higher education,” Gin continues, “but I think there will be many that question that now.”
Without a legal means to earn a decent income, students could be handicapped from paying for college and be barred from gainful employment once they graduate.
And students could face other distractions as well, according to Gin.
“California might be in a better position to be able to help a student go through college or university,” she says, “but if they and their families are being deported it doesn't mean much.”