When President Donald Trump demands a border wall or threatens to deport young unauthorized immigrants, one of the loudest opposition voices comes from the son of Mexican immigrants — who also happens to be California’s top lawyer.
Democrat Xavier Becerra, the state’s first Latino attorney general, is not only one of Trump’s biggest critics, he is an unrelenting adversary in court, striking at Republican efforts to overturn federal rules not just on immigration, but on health care, birth control, climate change and more.
On Tuesday, Becerra, 61, will take the national stage when he gives the Spanish-language rebuttal to the president’s State of the Union address. He has challenged the Trump agenda before.
Becerra has taken the Trump administration to court 45 times since former Gov. Jerry Brown appointed him to the job in 2017. In November, voters overwhelmingly gave him a four-year term, validating his decision to leave Congress after 24 years.
Becerra, whose wife is a doctor, is leading a coalition of 20 states and the District of Columbia in defending the Affordable Care Act against a Texas lawsuit that could determine the fate of the law — and with it, health coverage for millions of Americans. And he won a nationwide court injunction last year that blocked the Trump administration’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allows qualified young people who were brought into the U.S. illegally as children to obtain temporary work permits.
When news reports last month revealed that Trump was considering diverting emergency disaster relief funds from California, Florida and Texas during the partial federal government shutdown, Becerra condemned the president on Twitter for poaching funds for a “reckless & lawless” border wall.
The fights are ones that Becerra describes as personal. He talked to California Healthline’s Samantha Young about his role — and how his upbringing influences his legal decisions.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: You were a veteran member of Congress in a leadership role. Why did you take this job?
November 2016 hits. We have the election. All the things that I cared about were going to be placed in jeopardy by this new president.
I found myself thinking I probably could make a bigger difference as the attorney general for the entire state of California, defending everything I fought to erect, than as a minority member in the House of Representatives trying to make my point, but always losing.
I made a calculation. I think I made the right choice.
Q: You have sued the Trump administration 45 times on education, immigration, health care, birth control access, climate change and more. What’s the one case you really wanted to win?
I’ll give you two.
First, the Affordable Care Act, knowing how much it has been a game changer for families. I would never have believed that I’d be leading the effort to protect the entire Affordable Care Act as an attorney general for one of 50 states. But here I am.
The second one is the DACA litigation, because as the son of immigrants, I watched my parents struggle and saw the things they had to live through. I believe these DACA recipients are going to be some of the greatest leaders America has and it’s because they had to go through so much like my parents did. So, it’s very personal.
Q: Do you remember your parents’ economic struggles as a child?
I thought I was middle class growing up as a kid. It really wasn’t until I was driving with my mom to start my first day at Stanford University, driving through Palo Alto, that I realized I’m not middle class.
We always had decent food to eat. I never got a pair of Converse. I never had a pair of Levi’s jeans. Never had that kind of stuff, but I always had clothes. It didn’t dawn on me that we were much different than other folks.
Q: How does your upbringing influence your decisions as attorney general?
Everything I do is informed by what I grew up with. I defend immigrants with a passion because I saw immigrants every day of my life. And I know how hard they work. I never saw a day where my dad didn’t work.
My mom came here when she was 18 from Guadalajara, when she married my dad. Didn’t know English. Learned it. She could always find a job, and when she learned English it became easier. But she could never go very high because she never went to college.
So, when someone wants to knock an immigrant, you’re knocking my dad and my mom.
Q: You believe everyone should have access to health care. Was there ever a period in your life when you didn’t have health insurance?
I don’t ever recall a time when I didn’t. That’s why I’m such a big defender of unions. My dad was a construction worker. My dad got to the sixth grade. As difficult as it is for someone with a sixth-grade education to get a decent job, and while being a manual laborer and working construction doesn’t make you a millionaire, if you work for a union it gets you basic benefits.
I knew what it meant to have health insurance, especially on the day my mom ended up having a miscarriage. She was hemorrhaging at home and she had to be rushed to the hospital. There was no hesitation.
We knew we could go to the doctor — and everybody should know that. For me, health care is a right. I’ve been a single-payer advocate all my life.
Q: Why do you think it’s important to build coalitions with other states when challenging the Trump administration?
Lifting something by yourself is very difficult. When you get a team to do it, it just clicks so much easier. Maybe it’s because I went through Congress more years in the minority than the majority, where you realize what it takes to actually cobble together a coalition to get something done. Or, maybe it’s just that when you’ve been in a minority all your life, the son of immigrants with very little, you know it takes a team effort.
I got through Stanford knowing my family didn’t have a lot of money, so I had to work, take out student loans and receive help from the government. It was a combination of a lot of things.
Q: What’s your response to critics who say state attorneys general are “militarizing” their office to overturn policies your party can’t block in Congress?
Which of the cases should we not have filed? The one to defend the Affordable Care Act, or the one to prevent women from losing access to birth control, or is it the one to allow DACA Dreamers to be deported, or is it the one to make sure that we are defending against a crazy border wall, or is it the one that should allow predatory for-profit colleges to continue to avoid having to provide relief to students who were defrauded?
We’re not doing this because we’re trying to attack the federal government or because we’ve got it out for this particular president. How would we explain to the people who would have been unprotected why we just watched, why we just spectated?