As California Sen. Ben Hueso (D-San Diego), chair of the state’s Latino Legislative Caucus, mounted the stone steps of the state capitol on a cloudy day in December 2016, he thought about his father, Jesus Hueso. Although Jesus, a Mexican emigrant, became a U.S. citizen in 1952, he was still erroneously deported three times.
“Because of that, everywhere he went, he wore a suit,” Sen. Hueso recollected at a press conference in the capitol on the first day of California’s legislative session. “For my entire life I knew my father in a suit … because the government and the safety net and everything that we hold dear failed … to recognize him as a person of equal standing in our community.”
Sen. Hueso, who was wearing a suit, went on to announce a bill funding legal representation for those facing deportation. The measure, and its companion bill in the Assembly, were two of five that Democratic legislators introduced that day in an overt attempt to thwart President-elect Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim agenda.
“The president has promised on Day 1 that he’s going to ‘tackle the immigration issue,’ ” State Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said. “This is our Day 1. We’re doing the same thing.”
As Trump is conducting his cabinet-selection horror show, California’s Democratic legislators are backstage inspecting the control box. If Trump tries to follow through on his many threats—like deporting up to 3 million immigrants, building a massive border wall, scrapping environmental regulation, repealing the Affordable Care Act or rolling back civil rights—the Golden State is ready to resist.
States have a fair amount of leverage, enshrined in the Bill of Rights. The 10th Amendment grants states any powers not constitutionally reserved for the federal government. That “provides a floor and not a ceiling,” explains Adam Winkler, a UCLA constitutional law expert. If the federal government were to repeal, say, Obamacare or restrictions on concealed firearms, states could maintain their own health coverage or gun control laws. California legislators have said that they intend to uphold the state’s climate change policies, among the strictest in the nation.
Areas that are solely under federal purview, like immigration, are a different beast. In 1941, the Supreme Court held that it was unconstitutional for states to “conflict or interfere with, curtail or complement, the federal [immigration] law, or enforce additional or auxiliary regulation.” But states can still complicate enforcement.
Hueso’s bill, called Due Process for All, would reserve between $10 million and $80 million to pay lawyers to represent residents facing deportation, who are not automatically entitled to government-funded legal counsel. Sixty-eight percent of detained immigrants in California have no attorney, according to a study by the California Coalition for Universal Representation. Having a lawyer makes deportation five times less likely.
California Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) introduced three more bills challenging Trump. One would require a public vote on any border wall costing more than $1 billion. Lara’s office believes the law would hold up in court because of the wall’s effects on California’s environment and economy if it slices through wildlife habitats and trade routes. The second bill, a reintroduction of legislation vetoed in 2016 by Gov. Jerry Brown, would regulate city- and county-run immigrant detention facilities, setting health and safety standards and banning contracts with for-profit companies. The third bill, aimed at blocking Trump’s “Muslim registry,” prohibits state agencies from helping the federal government compile a database of residents’ religious affiliations.
California and other left-leaning states will likely also file lawsuits “when the Trump Administration pushes an agenda” that they oppose, much as Texas did over President Barack Obama’s attempts to shield certain groups of immigrants from deportation, Winkler says. Texas won its suit, but even unsuccessful suits can “gum up the system” and slow implementation.
States are also free to symbolically oppose federal policies, as California lawmakers did November 9. The leaders of both congressional houses issued a joint statement that read in part: “While Donald Trump may have won the presidency, he hasn’t changed our values. … We will not be dragged back into the past. We will lead the resistance to any effort that would shred our social fabric or our Constitution.”
As they watched the electoral votes stack up for Trump, Californians—who voted nearly 62 percent for Hillary Clinton and overwhelmingly supported progressive ballot measures like legalizing marijuana and taxing the rich—felt “like strangers in a foreign land,” as the statement put it. Across the state, in coffee shops and on Instagram, people began to talk about secession.
The state has the sixth-largest economy in the world, a point that state lawmakers and officials, including Gov. Jerry Brown, have repeatedly brought up. Hueso notes that California pays more federal taxes than it gets back in federal programs, essentially “subsidizing all these smaller Midwestern states”—many of them red.
For a state to exit the union (without a civil war), three-quarters of states must approve, which Adam Winkler finds unlikely. Still, “CalExit is a fun thing to talk about,” he says, “and it’s part of symbolic opposition.”
If the nation’s values aren’t aligned with California’s, then the progressive powerhouse state will figure out how to go its own way and, as Brown said in a recent speech, “launch its own damn satellites” to monitor climate change, for example. Relative to poorer states, which may struggle to continue such programs as Medicaid were the federal government to withdraw funding, California can afford to step up.
But it’s one thing for a state to cover Medicare or sue the federal government, and another for it to, say, actively stop immigration agents from rounding up someone’s father. Immigrant-rights groups are preparing for such contingencies. California’s Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE) is gathering immigrants’ contact information for a rapid response plan. “For example, we could send someone a text at work that says, ‘ICE is in the Westside of Ventura,’ ” explains policy and communications director Lucas Zucker. CAUSE and other groups nationwide are lining up sanctuaries and shelters—churches, community organizations and even workplaces.
In the nation’s most immigrant-rich state, what it comes down to, Hueso says, is that people are afraid. Every day he hears from parents terrified that they’ll be deported and their children, many of whom are citizens, forced into foster care. It reminds Hueso of his father, and of why he is doing this work.
“[My father] suffered very much,” says Hueso, “and I do not wish that on anybody. … We are better than that as a people. We are better than that as a country.”