California lawmakers defend DACA with an eye on lawsuit against Trump's action

President Trump’s decision to abandon existing protections for young men and women in the United States without legal status drew a sharp rebuke from the administration of Gov. Jerry Brown and other California officials Tuesday, with some suggesting the state take its own extraordinary efforts to keep those immigrants from being deported.

“California has its eyes on Congress to do what it should have done years ago, but we cannot bank on that,” said Brown’s top aide, Nancy McFadden, as the governor was traveling to an energy summit in Russia.

Democratic leaders of the California Legislature accused Trump of acting primarily to appease his conservative political base. And they pledged to take steps in Sacramento to protect thousands of immigrants who benefit from the protections, known as “Dreamers.”

“The Dreamers who were brought to this country as young children, who are American to their core, deserve better,” said Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount). “The Legislature will do everything we can working with local governments, universities and schools to keep these young people secure, safe and here where they belong.”

The announcement by U.S. Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions did not come as a surprise, though Brown and others mounted an impassioned defense of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, over the course of the last two weeks. That effort sought to highlight the unique impact the program has had on California. In particular, elected officials praised its effect on the state’s economy.

“To uproot these people from the only country they have known as home is to turn our back on the future,” Brown said in an Aug. 24 letter. “It is cruel and it runs counter to the ideals this country was founded on.”

An analysis this year by the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute found that California is home to more than 1 in 4 DACA participants, scattered among the Central Valley’s agricultural counties or clustered in urban areas. Los Angeles County topped the list with 180,000 eligible residents.

California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra promised legal action to challenge the Trump administration’s decision, arguing Tuesday that it was unconstitutional in light of the fact that the young immigrants followed the rules as instructed and, as such, may be denied their due process rights.

“They did what we always ask people to do,” Becerra said. “No one should be treated this way.”

Becerra and 19 other state attorneys general penned a letter to Trump in July urging him to defend the program, one month after Texas and nine other states threatened to sue if it wasn’t scrapped.

The decision to set an expiration date for DACA, which grants temporary deportation protection and work permits for immigrants who came into the United States illegally as children, follows the cancellation in June of the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans initiative, or DAPA, for immigrant parents. Both were efforts championed by President Obama that Trump pledged during the 2016 presidential campaign to cancel.

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The president’s decision struck a personal chord with Latino lawmakers. Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio (D-Baldwin Park) was deported with her family when she was 6. They later were able to gain U.S. citizenship through a family sponsor.

“To think about how my life changed because I was able to become documented, get an education and contribute to society,” Rubio said Tuesday. “I can’t imagine what these kids are going through right now.”

Republicans in the state Capitol voiced support for the young immigrants but agreed that Congress must act in the six-month time period laid out Tuesday by Sessions.

“Both Republicans and Democrats must come together to develop the immigration reforms that have sadly never materialized under presidential administrations and legislative majorities of both parties,” said state Senate Republican Leader Patricia Bates of Laguna Niguel.

“These are our neighbors,” said Assembly Republican Leader Chad Mayes of Yucca Valley. “They attend our schools, they speak English, they pay taxes and they played by the rules.”

But it’s unlikely that state Democrats will wait on Washington, where immigration reform has languished for years.

Legal action almost certainly would be followed by a renewed push by state lawmakers to intervene, though the timing — less than two weeks remain before the Legislature adjourns Sept. 15 — could make immediate action difficult.

State Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) said lawmakers will work to ensure that “DACA students can continue to earn income to support their educational dreams.”

A closely watched bill from De León would narrow the deportation dragnet, limiting the ability of state and local law enforcement officers to hold, question or detain immigrants in the country illegally.

“Because of their undocumented status — a result of Congress’ failure to pass immigration reform — these young adults have had to live in constant fear that they could lose their homes, families and accomplishments at any time,” he said.

A proposal by state Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) would provide grants, fee waivers or reimbursements to young immigrants at California community colleges and state universities in exchange for service in their school or community.

“It is a new level of cruelty that the [Trump] administration has showed,” Lara said about the termination of DACA. “It is unconscionable to me that [Trump] continues to discriminate and pick on some of our most vulnerable.”

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With California home to more than 2.5 million immigrants who lack legal residency status, lawmakers first assembled the state’s own program in 2015 to help nearly 20,000 people seek protection under the DACA and DAPA programs.

Under that effort, the California Department of Social Services awarded $15 million in contracts to more than 60 immigration and legal aid groups for legal training and assistance. The money allowed those groups to help immigrants prepare their DACA and DAPA applications. In all, about 16,500 DACA petitioners were helped.

California lawmakers jumped into the national fray over illegal immigration at the beginning of the year, insisting that the state could act if the federal government would not. Democrats initially sought to develop additional state-funded legal defense services for immigrants facing removal from the country. The effort was ultimately folded into June’s state budget deal, allocating $45 million to expand and refocus existing legal programs under California’s social services operations.

There are now more than 80 legal aid groups and nonprofits involved in finding alternative forms of immigration relief or using the state budget dollars to battle deportation and other removal proceedings.

That California’s top elected officials have embraced so strongly the idea of the state charting its own course on immigration issues isn’t surprising when viewed alongside the message delivered by statewide polls conducted in the first half of 2017.

A January poll from the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found 58% of voters and almost two-thirds of all adults supported local and state immigration action. And polls routinely show strong support, even among Republicans, of creating a path toward citizenship for those in the country illegally.

“We’ve seen consistent support for that,” said Mark Baldassare, the institute’s president and pollster, on support for citizenship efforts. “For Californians, this is a public opinion issue that has been settled for some time.”

john.myers@latimes.com

jazmine.ulloa@latimes.com

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UPDATES:

12:30 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from state lawmakers made after the Trump administration’s announcement, and with additional context about state proposals on immigration issues.

This article was originally published at 8:35 a.m.

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