Democracy In Action: How The California Republic Is Preparing For A Fight

In the chaos of the past several days of coming under Trumpian Rule, I have tried to say yes to every request for progressive political action presented to me.

I was able to fly to Washington, D.C. for the Women’s March on Washington. I suddenly diverted a casual Saturday stroll to grab makeshift protest signs and head to SFO Airport to protest the Muslim ban. I attended a postcard-writing party and mailed pleas to my representatives to protect the laundry list of things Trump has explicitly stated he is dedicated to dismantling. I have called my representatives, I have signed petitions, I have started carrying a homeopathic throat spray in my purse to keep my voice properly lubricated for chanting loud messages of dissent.

I am a resident of Berkeley, California and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker whose career has been dedicated to serving low-income populations that are often most acutely affected by shifts in public policy. Discussion of the current political climate pervades most of my social interactions lately, from the barista serving me coffee slyly suggesting that I “stay positive!” to a woman sharing in yoga class about an organizing group she attends, to daily text messages and phone calls from friends and family on the scariest headlines, and the entirety of my (very blue) Facebook feed. In this political climate, I find myself hyper-vigilant and hungry for information on how to proceed next, and wondering who the strongest leaders of this populist movement against a thinly-veiled fascist regime will be.

In the wake of a dizzying number of devastating executive orders, it has become clear to me that I must brush up on my understanding of how the Federal and State Government are actually supposed to work. I have wished more than once in the past week that I still had my high school Civics textbook to refer to, with its pleasantly colored graphs and organizational charts, to gather some grasp of what may happen next, or what magically appearing paths to block this administration could be. I even surveyed some much too quaint and simplistic old Schoolhouse Rock episodes on Youtube and privately wished someone (Buzzfeed?) would produce a viral video describing the inner details of our federal government as it relates to the past 12 days of this presidency. I’ve never been so interested in the nitty-gritty details of our political system in my entire life.

This is how I found myself in Sacramento Tuesday morning, on a beautiful sunny day, 15 minutes before the State Senate’s Public Safety Committee Hearing. I was dressed in professional garb, and joining a woman I had never met before at a coffee shop across the street to walk into the Capitol Building together. She was Donna Hoffman Cullinan, the Associate Campaign Director of California Early Education for MomsRising, an online and on-the-ground grassroots organization with over a million members, working on policy issues affecting women and families. I had wound up on their mailing list after signing one of many petitions, and she had sent out an email four days prior asking anyone who was willing to attend this Senate Committee hearing.

She wrote, “Your voice is powerful!” And I believed her.

With a week to kill before starting a new full-time position as a hospital social worker, I responded that I wanted to attend.

She was immediately warm and welcoming to me, and handed me a MomsRising pin to wear on my lapel as we walked into the Capitol Building. We were here to represent the organization’s 100,000 members in California and deliver 5,000 signatures to State Senators in support for SB 54, the California Values Act, a bill which will extend protections to undocumented immigrants across the state, explicitly making schools, hospitals and legal centers into safe places for undocumented folks to access services without fear of local law enforcement using information given there to turn otherwise law-abiding people over to ICE. The bill in its current draft states that,

“This bill would, among other things, prohibit state and local law enforcement agencies and school police and security departments from using resources to investigate, interrogate, detain, detect,or arrest persons for immigration enforcement purposes, as specified.”

This bill is effectively set up to defend California residents against an overzealous federal government potentially seeking to turn local police into immigration agents to go after the estimated three million undocumented people that live and work in California.

I have mostly worked with the children of undocumented folks, teenagers whose families were irrevocably fractured due to deportation and whom I met through my work in the foster care system and homeless services. In 2012 I volunteered at the first weekend of registration for DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, at a high school in Los Angeles, where undocumented teenagers and their families streamed in to meet with pro bono lawyers, deduce whether they were among the lucky eligible, and fill out piles of complicated paperwork, providing their identifying information under the auspices of protection from deportation. I have friends who arrived here as refugees, who came here on visas from countries that are now banned, who were once undocumented, and who have married people whose green cards are now at risk. A few days ago I signed terms and conditions paperwork from the hospital for my new position, promising to follow the current law and make a police report if someone shows signs of injury from assault. These protocols were set up to keep people safe and track crime, but if going to the hospital means triggering a police interaction that could cause deportation, undocumented people will inevitably avoid seeking medical care, with likely severe and life-threatening health consequences. To me, immigration issues are about life and death.

We arrived in the large hearing room where several TV cameras were already set up, and dozens of people had already gathered. Members of the Senate Committee on Public Safety were seated at a tall, imposing half-circular desk that overlooked a conference table wired with microphones, under a large New Deal-era mural depicting California history. Nancy Skinner, a very badass no-bullshit-taking woman and my representative from Berkeley, led the hearing.

The author of SB 54, California Senate President pro Tempore Kevin de León, stood at a podium and gave a short speech presenting the argument for this bill to the committee. A young man whose father was deported by Cal State Long Beach police after being pulled over for a broken headlight testified that since his father’s deportation to Mexico he has had to quit college in order to work full time to help support his 5 siblings and mother. A City Councilman from Anaheim, a sanctuary city, described the fear of his constituents who have to work in nearby Orange or Tustin, where they are not safe from being arbitrarily stopped by police and subsequently deported, and fear being separated from their families on a daily basis. It was interesting for me to see how the main argument for this bill was framed in terms of potential economic loss for the state and the additional burden placed on local police, versus making a bipartisan emphasis on our shared humanity, and social justice for all, etc.

After the testimony of those seated at the table, between 75 and 100 people lined up to speak into a microphone and express support for the bill to the committee. Each person stated their name and affiliation, as well as a sentence of support. There were people from all over California, and representatives from organizations including the ACLU, the National Council of Jewish Women, the National Association of Social Workers, Friends Committee on Legislation, the City of West Hollywood, Equality California, Immigrant Legal Resource Centers and a variety of Labor Centers, as well as some college students, concerned citizens and members of other organizations that I cannot recall because I suddenly found myself very nervous to speak my own name into the microphone and assert myself as a person with a right to be there and a perspective that should be heard. “Maura Darrow, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Member of MomsRising, in strong support,” I said. I later wished I had said what I truly believe: “This is not a partisan issue but a humanitarian one. Please support SB 54 and have California lead the nation against xenophobia.”

Following this long line of support, the opposition presented its perspective, which included a representative from the Sheriff’s Association. Not one person from the audience stood up to chime in, and even the police representatives seemed reticent to state that they were wholeheartedly against the bill. Questions were then taken by Senator de León from Committee members. Leading the questioning with a frustrated tone was Jeff Stone, Representative from the 28th District (and one of my favorite places on earth, the Coachella Valley! Though known more for its polo fields and golf courses than progressive values). He was dressed in a red button-up shirt, (a color which seems to be more politicized than ever lately) and seemed very fixated on the idea that violent criminals would benefit from and be protected under this bill, which also seemed to indicate that he had not actually read the bill’s text.

The bill does not seek to protect undocumented individuals charged with felonies who are currently turned over to ICE officials. Joel Anderson, another Republican Senator from San Diego, piped up that his constituents “do not all live in gated communities,” and as a result are very invested in “catching and deporting any and all criminals to the fullest extent of the law.” Senator de León responded, “Most Californians do not live in gated communities,” and warned against depicting undocumented people as violent criminals. Other Senators on the committee also explicitly warned that describing undocumented people as violent criminals is a dangerous and racist narrative that lacks scientific evidence. More than once it was reiterated that undocumented communities actually have lower rates of criminal activity than do other communities.

Senator Stone expressed fear with regard to the potential financial fallout if California is perceived as becoming a “sanctuary state,” given Trump’s promises regarding withdrawing all federal funding from sanctuary cities. But the idea that we must choose to prioritize people over money, and cannot succumb to the threats of bullies, were among the sentiments expressed by other Senators in response. Senators Hannah-Beth Jackson, Holly J. Mitchell, Scott Wiener and Nancy Skinner responded to Republicans in intelligent, well-articulated and passionate arguments. It was fascinating, and genuinely thrilling to see politics at work.

The vote went down party lines and ended in 5-2, with Democrats voting in favor and Republicans against. Republicans described a desire for more detail written into the legislation regarding how to deal with violent criminal offenders. SB 54 will move on to the next committee, Appropriations, and then hopefully be passed by the Senate and sent to the Assembly, thus taking one step closer to Governor Jerry Brown’s desk.

Afterwards, Donna invited me to attend a press conference in another room in the Capitol, which I thought sounded entertaining. About 20 minutes later I found myself staring into the bright lights of six news cameras for Telemundo, Univision, ABC, FOX and others with about 25 other supporters, including Senate Leader de León and Senator Scott Wiener of San Francisco. Several representatives from various organizations, including Donna for MomsRising, read their support of The California Values Act and its wide-ranging implications into the cameras, with hopes that the news media will cover the progress of this legislation.

Following the press conference’s completion, a woman announced that another related bill, SB 31, would be in the Judiciary Committee later that afternoon and needed support as well. This bill, the California Religious Freedom Act, is aimed at preventing local and state government officials from sharing any information about citizen’s religious beliefs or affiliations with federal governmental officials, in anticipation of the Muslim registry that Trump promised he would pursue. I decided to stay and watch the proceedings, and line up again with so many others to say my name into a microphone in strong support. That bill was approved 6-0 and sent on to the Appropriations Committee as well. Joel Anderson, the San Diego Republican Senator from the morning, whose contiuents pointedly don’t reside in gated communities, even stated that he would like to be put down as a co-author. It was a heartening day in a very bleak previous week.

As was reiterated multiple times by lawmakers that afternoon, California is the sixth largest economy in the world. We are quite possibly the state with enough leverage to lead the country in standing up against Trump’s xenophobic policies. If the United States is truly a nation of immigrants, California should be acutely aware that we are made up almost entirely of people who moved from elsewhere to chase a dream here. As Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson said at one point that afternoon, “We are a state of immigrants. And unless we are Native Americans, we all came from somewhere else." We can attribute our state’s giant economic strength to attracting talented and industrious people from all over the world to work in jobs ranging from Silicon Valley start ups to the Central Valley’s strawberry fields. We have an opportunity to lead the country in legislation that can potentially protect vulnerable people against the racist policies being put forth by this administration. It is a powerful and quite serious position to be in, and it was absolutely thrilling to get to witness our lawmakers getting ready for this fight up close.

I encourage you to attend a committee hearing and express your support of legislation that you are passionate about, and feel empowered to participate in the political process in this very tangible way.

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