Capitol Journal: California Democrats relish opposing Trump on immigration — but they could go too far

Protesters take part in a vigil at Los Angeles City Hall against President Trump's executive orders on immigration.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

President Trump wants to deport immigrants who have entered the country illegally — not protect them in sanctuaries. But in California, what he is doing almost certainly will lead to one huge sanctuary.

Rather than several city and county sanctuaries as now — including Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco — there very probably will be one all-encompassing state sanctuary, a sprawling, relatively safe haven for immigrants in the country illegally.

For the record:

12:37 a.m. June 17, 2024A previous version of this column reported that Donald Trump received 31.8% of the vote in California in the 2016 presidential election. He received 31.6% of the vote.

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. That was Isaac Newton’s third law of motion roughly three centuries ago. It often applies to politics as well as physics. And California Democrats are adhering to Newton’s law.


They’re ignoring Jim Croce’s law, however. That law, laid down in a hit song by the late rock singer back in the turbulent early 1970s, was: “You don’t tug on Superman’s cape….You don’t pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger/And you don’t mess around with Jim.”

California’s Democratic politicians are messing around with Donald Trump and enjoying every minute, seemingly not the least worried about the president’s cape, despite his threat to cut off tens of billions of federal dollars to California.

Actually, it has been pretty good politics so far. Trump’s impatient actions have created a center stage for Democrats, and they’ve leaped on it.

But can they overreach and look petty? Should they be focusing their energies on defending immigrants and fighting the new Republican president rather than concentrating on such acute state problems as crumbling highways and short water supplies? I asked a veteran Democratic campaign strategist who advises moderate legislators.

“Is there a danger of being too anti-Trump?” David Townsend responded. “Not in California. The danger is not being anti-Trump enough.”


Trump, remember, was trampled in this blue state. He drew a smaller percentage of the California vote — 31.6% — than any GOP presidential candidate in 160 years. Hillary Clinton won by almost 2 to 1.

But Townsend does offer this advice concerning immigrants: “Provide protection for people who deserve it. Don’t provide it for people who don’t. Don’t be put into a Willie Horton trap.”

Updates from Sacramento »

Horton, who is black, raped a pregnant white woman and tortured her fiance while on furlough from a Massachusetts prison, where he was serving a life sentence for murder. Michael S. Dukakis was the governor, a fact voters were reminded of by George H.W. Bush in an odorous TV ad when the two ran for president in 1988.

Also, Townsend cautions Democrats: “Resist the broad brush of saying Trump’s bad on everything. No, he’s not. Let’s pick our shots.”

Protecting unauthorized immigrants from federal deportation is the No. 1 shot of Democratic legislators. And that’s to be expected. There are 27 Democratic Latinos in the Legislature — roughly one-third of the party’s strength. Virtually everyone is the descendant of a struggling immigrant.


The leader of each house is Latino. Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León’s mother migrated to San Diego illegally and cleaned homes for a living. De León (D-Los Angeles) has long been a pro-immigrant activist.

It’s no wonder that pro-immigrant legislation is moving at uncharacteristically high speed in Sacramento. Democrats are trying to use their supermajority to enact some bills before the president can start trying to round up immigrants in the country illegally for deportation. About 2.3 million resided in California at last estimate.

Two state Senate committees Tuesday approved two bills on party line votes to declare California a “sanctuary” state and to provide free legal services for immigrants facing deportation.

The sanctuary bill, by De León, would prohibit state and local law enforcement agencies from using their officers or jails to uphold federal immigration laws. That would be solely the federal government’s job.

“If President Trump moves forward forcefully with the massive deportation of working families — law-abiding residents who pay their taxes, contribute greatly to our richness — the state of California will not participate in any way, shape or form,” De León told me. “We do not want to separate mothers from their children.”

He continued: “We will not let the federal government — and Trump particularly — commandeer local tax dollars and local police officers to enforce federal immigration policies.”


Also, said De León, echoing several law enforcement agencies, if immigrants believe they’re in danger of being reported to federal officials for deportation, they’ll clam up. They’ll stop reporting local crimes and cooperating in solving them.

But how about if local cops, for example, jail a repeat drunk driver or a violent mugger who’s in the country illegally? Shouldn’t he be reported to the feds?

Whenever a suspect is booked, De León replied, he’s fingerprinted. And the fingerprints go to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

“There’s a red flag,” the senator said. “If it’s someone they want, they can get a judicial warrant. It’s very routine.”

De León’s bill also would prevent federal agents from conducting sweeps in public facilities such as hospitals, courthouses or universities — although if they were chasing someone, they could follow and collar him.

Gov. Jerry Brown hasn’t taken a position on these bills. But how could he not sign them?

In his annual State of the State address, Brown promised “to defend everybody — every man, woman and child — who has come here for a better life and has contributed to the well-being of our state.”


Good idea. California Democrats should stand up to Trump. But better make sure no Willie Horton is given sanctuary.

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