California Democratic Attorney General Xavier Becerra, a politician barely known outside his state, is waging an effective but largely unnoticed fight against headline-grabbing President Donald Trump.

Their battlefield is immigration. Trump now is using the issue to bring out his prejudiced, white older base to win the 2020 election, and it’s a tactic he has exploited since he first became a candidate.

“Our area is full, the sector is full. Can’t take you anymore. I’m sorry,” Trump said during a roundtable on the border at the U.S. Border Patrol station in Calexico, Calif., on April 5. “So turn around. That’s the way it is.” A day later, at the Republican Jewish Coalition meeting in Las Vegas, he described asylum for immigrants as “a scam” and said those applying are “some of the roughest people you’ve ever seen.”

Becerra, son of immigrants from Mexico, has a different vision of America. As he told the New York Times in 1997, “We are stronger today because we are a nation of immigrants.  And our immigrant brothers and sisters are among the hardest-working neighbors we have in America today. I can say that from firsthand knowledge—not hearsay or anecdote—as the son of immigrants. …  I can tell you how hard my mom and dad worked every day to help build our country.”

Becerra was born into a working-class family in Sacramento and was educated in public schools before moving on to Stanford University and Stanford Law School. He was a legislative aide and then was elected to Congress from a heavily Latino East Los Angeles district in 1993. He served there until Gov. Jerry Brown appointed him attorney general in 2017. In assuming that office, Becerra replaced Kamala Harris, who was elected to the Senate. While on Capitol Hill, he had risen high in the House leadership, but as is the fate of some of the most effective House members, he never became well known outside of Washington, his district or in state politics.

From the outset, Becerra went after the Trump administration in a methodical, lawyer-like manner, more Stanford Law School than Trump real-estate pitch or “Apprentice” performance.

Immigration is a federal matter. State authority is limited. Still, Becerra managed to use state power to challenge the president. Sometimes working with nonprofit legal aid organizations and California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Becerra filed more than 40 lawsuits, many dealing with immigration. A year ago, Adam Liptak remarked in The New York Times, “California has been doing well in court, winning more than a dozen rulings against the administration.”

“If I were a baseball player, our batting average would be phenomenal,” Becerra said at a press conference with Newsom. “It’d be out of this world. I’d be a free agent making some good money.” Newsom added, “Hall of Fame.”

Becerra is also using the investigatory power of his office to go after Trump and his administration’s immigration enforcement methods. Empowered by a new state law, California Department of Justice officials investigated conditions at the federal detention centers where almost 75,000 immigrants are held. The largest number of these detainees are from Mexico and Central America, most of them guilty only of immigration violations, which are civil offenses. They are detained in conditions that are often worse than in federal prisons for criminals convicted of felonies.

Local newspapers had previously reported many of the inhumane conditions, as had immigrant rights groups. But Becerra put it together in one detailed report titled “Immigration Detention in California.” Released in February, the report provided a devastating picture of the treatment of immigrants jailed for long periods of times for minor violations.

Such appalling conditions are made all the more unacceptable because the detained immigrants have not been charged, tried or convicted of a crime. A new report by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University backs up Becerra’s findings. Countering Trump’s portrayal of immigrants as dangerous, TRAC noted that four in five detainees either had no criminal record or had committed minor offenses such as a traffic violation. Just one in five had been convicted of a felony.

They were picked up after seeking asylum at the border or for being in the country without documents. A minority had been arrested by local police, usually on suspicion of possession of small amounts of marijuana or for driving under the influence. “The end result is the confinement of many immigrants in highly restrictive settings without any specific finding that they pose a risk of flight or danger to the community, ” Becerra’s report said.

Becerra’s investigators visited the 10 detention centers in California, talking to guards, officials and inmates. The abuses inflicted on the inmates “include restrictions on liberty, adversarial interactions with facility staff, lack of language accommodation, limited access to medical and mental health care, obstacles to communicating with support systems outside the facility,” the report detailed.

Those in the centers are imprisoned for long periods. At Otay Mesa, in the San Diego area, the average length of stay is 41 days, with one inmate held there for 1,055 days. In the center in Orange County, the average stay is 81 days and the longest was 1,500 days.

There is no sign of relief.  Most detainees are awaiting hearings in immigration courts, where the wait list now exceeds 1 million. It would take 5.1 years to work through the backlog, assuming the courts take up no new cases, according to TRAC.

The long incarcerations and poor conditions in the detention centers are the results of Trump’s efforts to inflame the country against immigrants hailing from south of the border. Trump is all noise, playing to what he sees as a white nationalist country that shares the prejudices he hopes will inflame his electorate.  It’s his chosen path to re-election.

Becerra speaks of shared values. “Anyone here an immigrant or a child or grandchild of immigrants?” Becerra asked the last Democratic National Convention. “Anyone here the first in a family to go to college? Who here makes a living working with your hands?”

So far, the many Democratic candidates for president, fearing Trump’s so-called “base,” are at a loss on how to counter him on immigration. Maybe the way is not trying to catch every Trump lie and effort to inflame hate. Maybe a better approach is to follow Becerra’s lead, chipping away at the legal and rhetorical underpinnings of Trumpism while reminding the country of the bonds Americans share.


Your support matters…

Independent journalism is under threat and overshadowed by heavily funded mainstream media.

You can help level the playing field. Become a member.

Your tax-deductible contribution keeps us digging beneath the headlines to give you thought-provoking, investigative reporting and analysis that unearths what's really happening- without compromise.

Give today to support our courageous, independent journalists.