State lawmakers clashed in rancorous debate Monday over how to respond to President-elect Donald Trump, with the majority party Democrats introducing a barrage of legislation challenging his key proposals on immigration, and urging him to abandon threats of mass deportations.
Gaveling in a new two-year session, lawmakers announced bills that would provide attorneys to immigrants in the country illegally, refuse assistance to any proposed registry of Muslim immigrants and require any wall built along the Mexican border to first be approved by California voters.
Democratic leaders were harshly critical of Trump and sounded a combative tone in their opening comments, vowing to work aggressively as a “check” against the president-elect when his policies conflict with those adopted in California regarding the 3 million immigrants in the state illegally.
Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount) called Trump's agenda "cynical, short-sighted and reactionary" and criticized his appointments, saying that "white nationalists and anti-Semites have no business working in the White House.” He said California needs to strongly counter what is happening in Washington.
“Californians do not need healing. We need to fight,” Rendon told his colleagues.
Assembly GOP Leader Chad Mayes of Yucca Valley said he was saddened by the bellicosity of Rendon’s speech.
"Some of the rhetoric that I heard today, I felt like I was watching a speech from Trump, to be honest,” Mayes said. "It was fear mongering. There was demagoguery.”
Senate Leader Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles), who noted that he is the son of an immigrant mother, said the Legislature accepts the election results.
“But California will never appease those who threaten to undermine our prosperity or deprive our people of their most fundamental human rights,” De León told his colleagues. “We refuse to regress back to the politics of scapegoating, preying on religious, racial and ethnic hostilities, echoing the dark divisive days of Proposition 187.”
De León was referring to a 1994 ballot measure that sought to deny immigrants in the country illegally access to public services, but was mostly overturned by the courts. He said immigrants are once again filled with “fear and panic” over their future.
Both houses approved a nonbinding resolution, largely along party lines, urging Congress to adopt new immigration laws that provide a way for immigrants to gain citizenship and asking Trump to continue the Obama administration policy that has deferred the deportation of immigrants brought to this country as minors.
While Democratic Assemblyman Marc Levine of San Rafael called Trump’s immigration policies “ethnic cleansing,” Republican Travis Allen of Huntington Beach called the resolution “reckless demagoguery,” and said Trump only plans to deport those who are also criminals.
“When we are attacked, we have to fight back,” said Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), whose parents were immigrants in the country illegally before they gained citizenship. He said opponents of rolling back current policies “are going to fight [proponents of mass deportations] in the streets.”
Republican Sen. Joel Anderson of San Diego said the resolution was “racist” by favoring some immigrants over others who come to the country legally, while Republican Sen. Mike Morrell of Riverside drew a rebuke from the chair when he asked Lara if he meant activists would fight “physically” or “with guns.”
While Democrats in the Legislature seemed ready to roll up their sleeves and fight the potential changes promised by Trump, Gov. Jerry Brown sounded a note of caution on Monday. At a media event with his selection for attorney general, Los Angeles Rep. Xavier Becerra, the governor said he would “watch to see” what happens in the nation’s capital.
"I’m going to take it step by step and work in a collaborative way, but also defend our principles vigorously,” Brown said. "I think that’s the wiser course of action."
The new session sees Democrats holding a two-thirds majority in both houses, and leaders of the emboldened party have vowed to fight against Trump as he threatens significant policy changes.
The legislation requiring a public vote on any border wall costing more than $1 billion was one of three bills introduced by Lara.
A second bill would prohibit state agencies from providing information to the federal government on a person’s religious affiliation if it is to be used for the purposes of compiling a database of individuals based solely on religious affiliation. Lara said the measure would not affect the sharing of information among law enforcement officials for national security purposes.
“We’re not going to allow a wall that harms our environment and our economy,” Lara said in a statement. “We’re not going to allow personal data on individual Californians' religious beliefs to be used to compile an unconstitutional database.”
The third Lara bill is a reintroduction of legislation vetoed this year by Brown. The measure would prohibit local governments from contracting with private, for-profit companies to detain immigrants, and will require detention facilities to meet the minimum health and safety standards set by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Lara said.
Anderson said the wall legislation is political grandstanding and will not have any impact.
“We’re not in the business of dictating what the feds can do on federal land,” he said. “It’s a great publicity stunt. I’m not sure it has any potency behind it whatsoever.”
After consulting with attorneys, Lara believes the state has the constitutional authority to put a wall project to a vote because of its impact on California’s economy and environment, but the legislative counsel has informally advised the senator that the issue ultimately might end up in court.
The state has limited authority to interfere in federal immigration enforcement efforts, but can make the programs more difficult to pursue by not cooperating and challenging actions in court, according to Adam Winkler, a specialist in U.S. constitutional law at the UCLA School of Law.
“If the federal government wants to shut down the border by building a wall, it will have the constitutional authority to do that,” Winkler said. “But the state can become a thorn in the side of the feds by making it more difficult.”
Democrats also proposed a pair of bills primarily aimed at bolstering the legal representation of immigrants who are in the country illegally and threatened with deportation. The bills could supercharge the state's role in pushing back against the Trump administration's effort to deport as many as 3 million people living in the United States.
Most sweeping is a bill that would authorize state government grants to nonprofit organizations that provide legal help for immigrants facing deportation. State Sen. Ben Hueso (D-San Diego), the chairman of the California Latino Legislative Caucus, said his bill could help a significant number of immigrants to successfully challenge deportations.
“We have an obligation to defend every person who is under the shadow of the California flag,” he said.
The second bill would establish a new training and funding program for public defenders involved in immigration cases. Hueso estimated between $10 million and $80 million would be provided for the two bills combined, mostly helping to pay for attorneys to represent immigrants in deportation proceedings.
Rendon said the state has an obligation to defend Californians who are contributing to the state’s economy. He criticized those who say the Democrats were furthering political division in the country.
“Californians should be wary of the national calls for unity and healing,” he said. “Unity must be separated from complicity. We must be defiant whenever justice, fairness and righteousness require.”
Times staff writers John Myers and Liam Dillon contributed to this report.