When Xavier Becerra’s father was a young man in California, restaurants barred people like him. Businesses would post signs with the words “No dogs or Mexicans allowed.”
Born in the United States but raised in Tijuana, Mexico, Manuel Becerra left school around sixth grade, crossing the border with his relatives to find work picking crops in the fields of California. Over the years, he toiled away in sweaty construction and railroad jobs, hauling trash or canning tomatoes for Campbell’s soup during the winters. Becerra’s mother, Maria, married Manuel Becerra and came to the United States from Guadalajara, Mexico, when she was 18. She became a clerical worker and gave birth to four children.
These are the parents who raised an ambitious politician who became a leader in the U.S. House of Representatives and then, last year, attorney general of California. And these are the kind of people that Xavier Becerra feels are threatened by the actions of the Trump administration.
In just over a year as attorney general, Becerra has become a leader of the California resistance, the legal brain behind the state’s fight against the president’s policies on health care, the environment and most significantly, immigration. For Becerra, the son of immigrants and the state’s first Latino attorney general, this fight is both political and personal.
“I tell folks if you want to know where I’ll take you, look at where I’ve come from,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post. “There’s really no difference between my parents and most of the immigrants that we’re discussing today except a piece of paper.”
If this is a battle between Trump’s values and California’s, as many believe it is, Becerra is a fitting warrior. He is quintessentially Californian, representing an overwhelmingly Democratic state where 27 percent of residents are foreign-born and where non-Hispanic whites are just 38 percent of the population. He was educated in Sacramento’s public schools and then at Stanford University and Stanford Law School. When he speaks to the public, as he did at a news conference Tuesday, he often switches easily between Spanish and English.
He said he’s loving every minute of the fight. “I feel almost liberated to try to express through our actions what California has meant to me and what it can mean to so many in the future,” he told The Washington Post.
In just over a year, he has filed an astonishing 28 lawsuits against the administration, challenging initiatives on immigration, health care and environmental policy. The lawsuits have attempted, with some success so far, to block Trump’s travel ban, his border wall, his policies on “dreamers,” people brought illegally to the United States as children and “sanctuary cities,” those with a policy of protecting people who are in the country illegally and not cooperating with federal authorities to deport them. Becerra counts 13 legal victories so far, although they are in ongoing battles that he ultimately could win or lose. Earlier this year he went on a hiring spree, building teams of lawyers to take on the Trump administration.
This legal fight is likely to benefit Becerra politically in the state, heightening his profile and positioning him for higher office. At 60 years old, he is running a statewide election this year to win a full term as attorney general. Asked about his ambitions, he said: “Wherever I can make the biggest difference I will always look for that opportunity. Right now, it is fun and fantastic to be the AG, something I did not expect to be.”
The White House is fighting back with a vengeance. Last week, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit accusing California of violating the Constitution with laws that protect undocumented immigrants. Attorney General Jeff Sessions lashed out at state and local officials in California, accusing them of undermining federal immigration law and pushing a “radical open-borders agenda.”
Sessions specifically called out Becerra in an interview with the website Breitbart, condemning him for saying he would prosecute business owners for voluntarily allowing immigration officers on their property. “We cannot just stand idly by while top officials in any state directly seek to disrupt federal immigration enforcement,” Sessions told the conservative news outlet.
Trump appeared to relish his first visit as president to California Tuesday, where he viewed prototypes for his big border wall.
Though Becerra didn’t meet the president in person, he tweeted Trump a message on the eve of his trip: “Not looking to pick fight, but if CA values threatened, ready.”
As Trump toured the state Tuesday, Becerra brought out the guns — literally. At a news conference, he laid out an array of guns that had been seized by agents from the state’s Bureau of Firearms. He touted California’s system of tracking and removing firearms from people prohibited from possessing them under state law.
He compared Trump’s promised border wall to “medieval walls” that deter “knights on horses.” And he criticized the president and inaction in Washington in remarks he delivered in both Spanish and English.
“While President Trump talks about what he wants to do, he accomplishes little,” Becerra said in Spanish. “Ya basta la plática.” Enough of the chatter. “Here in California, we act.”
Becerra, who has a wife and three daughters, proudly speaks of his Mexican heritage and the story of his upbringing in interviews and speeches. Addressing the Democratic National Convention in 2016, he raised his hand as he asked the audience: “Anyone here an immigrant or the child or grandchild of immigrants? Anyone the first in your family to go to college? Who here makes a living working with your hands, making this country better?”
“This election is about us. It’s personal,” he said. After all, during Trump’s campaign he referred to Mexicans as “criminals,” “drug dealers” and “rapists.”
He used his own story to draw a contrast with Trump. “I can’t tell you if this man has ever had a callous on his hands. Does he know the price of a gallon of milk or a loaf of bread?” And he shared a saying he often turns to in Spanish: “Dime con quién andas y te diré quién eres. Tell me with whom you walk, and I’ll tell you who you are.”
Who Becerra is has a lot to do with how he grew up, with his parents and three sisters in a 680-square-foot house in Sacramento. They attended Masses in Spanish at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church.
Becerra recalled his father waking up in the early morning hours before he and his sisters did, and coming back after a construction job only to keep working on jobs around the house.
“I never played a day of catch with my dad,” Becerra said. “But he did give me a hammer with some nails.”
As a young man in the 1970s, he worked alongside his father on construction crews, paving and repairing Sacramento roads. He recalled with pride the first time he was able to pull a 90-pound jackhammer off his father’s hands and tell him, “Let me take this one.” He worked alongside immigrants and nonimmigrants alike in his construction jobs and learned that “you’re no different from the rest of the guys so long as you can handle a jackhammer and do the same amount of work.”
In high school, he was convinced he would only apply to one college, the University of California at Davis, since he had attended a summer program there. Stanford wasn’t even on his radar until he saw a friend throwing away an application to the school.
“I essentially said, ‘Don’t do that — let me have it,'” Becerra recalled. He applied on a whim at the last minute, and got in — becoming the first in his family to graduate from college.
Though he started out pursuing a career in biochemistry, he soon realized he was not cut out for that path. He started tutoring young children in East Palo Alto, particularly Latino immigrant children who didn’t speak much English. “All of a sudden, I could actually be a voice for them,” Becerra said. The program spurred his interest in advocacy, which later prompted his decision to pursue a law degree at Stanford.
Early in his career, he served as California’s deputy attorney general and spent two years in the state Assembly. As a confident and wide-eyed 35-year-old freshman congressman in 1993, he brashly engaged in a shouting match with one of the most powerful members of the House — Dan Rostenkowski, then chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. The subject: welfare funds for disabled legal immigrants.
“I still had the floor and as a freshman I was expected to shut up, but I thought it was an important issue and I didn’t stop talking,” Becerra told the Los Angeles Times in 1993. The Times characterized the confrontation as “almost breathtaking in its departure from House etiquette. “Becerra is young and green and he’ll learn,” one congressional source said at the time.
Despite losing that fight, Becerra eventually rose to become the first Latino on the House Ways and Means Committee, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and the highest-ranking Latino on Capitol Hill. He served almost a quarter century in Congress and worked on an unsuccessful bipartisan effort to grant legal status to the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.
Rostenkowski went to prison for fraud. He died in 2010.
Leading up to the 2016 election, Becerra was seen by some as a possible running mate for Clinton. He campaigned across the country for the Democratic nominee and was expected to be considered for a Cabinet position — if Clinton had won. Trump’s victory quashed those ambitions.
With no clear way to ascend the House leadership, Becerra prepared to vie for the spot as the top ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee. Then came the call from Gov. Jerry Brown. He nominated Becerra to succeed Kamala D. Harris (D), who resigned as attorney general after her election to the U.S. Senate. The appointment was an unexpected but natural fit for Becerra.
“It’s like when I got to take the jackhammer from my dad’s hand,” he said. “I thought I could make a bigger difference for my state, for my country as the attorney general for California,” perhaps a bigger difference than as a member of the House.
“I knew that if candidate Trump followed through as President Trump with much of what he said, I would be very busy.”
The attorney general job brought him full circle, back to his home town of Sacramento. He now lives right next door to his parents, and not far from C.K. McClatchy High School, which he attended.
More from Morning Mix: