Kamala Harris said Thursday that in her new role as California's U.S. senator she will to do everything in her power to protect immigrants, both legal and those who entered the country illegally, and criticized Donald Trump's demands for mass deportations and a giant border wall as "absolutely unrealistic."
Harris struck a defiant tone during the first public appearance since her landslide Senate win over Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Orange), purposely holding the event with immigrants and immigrant rights activists at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.
"Today we are rededicating ourselves to fighting for the best of who we are. And there are a lot of people, as a result of this election, that are feeling dispirited at best," she said. "Part of what we have to say is that you are not alone, you matter and we've got your back."
Harris said she already has talked with her future Democratic colleagues about "banding together" to protect immigrants from what she described as the draconian immigration proposals of the president-elect. Harris said she wants to preserve Obama administration policies intended to shield some immigrant children and their parents from deportation, though some the president's actions have been blocked by the courts.
Trump has vowed to overturn many of the president's executive actions on immigration, such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which temporarily shields from deportation people who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
"This issue of how we are treating our immigrants, and in particular our undocumented immigrants, is one of the most critical issues facing our country," Harris said. "We are not going to be achieving who we say we are as a country if we attack our community members, our neighbors, our friends and our colleagues."
Harris said she recently met with immigrant families with children who are terrified they will be forced to leave the United States.
Elena Mercado, a house cleaner from the San Fernando Valley, was invited to Harris' event to share her story. Her three children are protected from deportation under the Obama administration's immigration policies, but she is not.
"My heart is broken, in part because of revolt of this election," she said in Spanish. "I'm very worried for my future, the future of this nation and also the future of my family."
Angelica Salas, executive director of the immigration center, said now is the time for Californians to come together to protect all immigrants from the "hate and division" stirred by the presidential campaign.
Along with protecting the rights of immigrants, as well as women, the LGBT community and others, Harris said Democrats must work to appeal to the disaffected working-class voters whose support was critical to Trump's surprise victory. Her idea for doing so hewed toward union-friendly policies, including job training, workplace protections and preserving collective bargain rights.
"These are very real issues and is something that should be a priority for all of us," Harris said.
Harris, California's two-term attorney general, said she's an "optimist" that a bipartisan accord can be reached to fix the nation's dysfunctional immigration system, adding that, despite the rhetoric from Trump, most Republicans realize it cannot be ignored.
"I think the Republicans have come to understand that this is something they're going to have to deal with," Harris said.
Whether Trump would stick to his pledges for mass deportations and to ban Muslim immigrants from coming to the U.S. — or soften those hard-line stances — is another story, she said.
"We have yet to see, to be honest with you." Harris said. "I think it's absolutely unrealistic that we're going to build a wall and Mexico is going to pay for it. I don't think that's going to happen."
With Trump now in a position to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court, Harris said she doesn't expect Democrats in Congress to engage in the same obstructionism the GOP used to block Obama's nominee to fill the the seat of late Justice Antonin Scalia.
Democrats in the Senate can thoroughly vet Trump's nominees without handcuffing the high court, she said.
"It's basically what we teach our children, just because somebody does something bad in the classroom, you don't do something bad in return," Harris said. "It is time for all of us to perform our duties. There's too much work to be done. I don't expect the Democrats are going play those kinds of games."