Los Angeles is at the center of the immigration debate, and Mayor Eric Garcetti, who is thinking of running for president, is in the middle of it.
“This is ground zero,” Garcetti told me when we talked in his City Hall office Jan. 5. “I have a particular responsibility as mayor of Los Angeles, which has one of the largest immigrant populations, one of the largest undocumented populations, to try to move this country toward sane immigration policies and, in the meantime, try to defend the families and people who are here.”
Garcetti spoke of President Donald Trump with contempt.
“With this president, we’ve had the death of values, the dismissal of experience, and evidence that we’ve had the decline of our strength globally and domestically. We have a president who hasn’t spent very much time living with everyday people. He doesn’t understand a city like Los Angeles, or one like Kansas City, that depends on the workings of a pluralistic society. He continues to blow the dog whistle of anti-immigrant feelings to mobilize his vision of American identity.”
I asked whether he’s considered running for president. That, he said, “is something I am thinking about.”
“I think every patriot in this country should be thinking about how we can change the White House now,” he said. “I would never make a decision on this based on a single issue (such as immigration) but whether it is an attack on women, whether it’s an attack on immigrants, whether it’s changing the courts, whether it is losing all of our power internationally—there are too many things to boil it down to one and say, ‘This is what disturbs me in this country right now.’ I think we are all called in an increasingly national role to speak up and speak out.
“I think there have been so many lies peddled: the coal jobs will come back, that we would be stronger abroad, tax reform would help the middle class, that we’ll help the environment. All these things Trump said he was for have been the opposite. So I’m not a one-issue kind of guy. I don’t think most Americans are.”
But when it comes to immigration, Garcetti said, “There has been a particular betrayal.” He was talking about “Dreamers,” the beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Trump has refused to renew the program unless Congress approves money for his controversial border wall.
In regard to Dreamers, Garcetti said, Trump promised “he would take care of them, they have nothing to worry about. Ask a DACA recipient right now: They’ve got a hell of a lot to be worried about. Every single day they live in fear.”
If Garcetti runs, he likely would be part of a large field of 2020 hopefuls struggling to find a winning message after Hillary Clinton’s unexpected and shattering loss to Trump in 2016. At this stage of the game, even a long shot like Garcetti may have a chance.
I interviewed Garcetti while pursuing immigration stories for Truthdig. He’s got more on his mayoral agenda, including intractable homelessness and a growing shortage of affordable housing. But on this particular day, I wanted to explore his views on immigration and Trump.
Garcetti supports the long-standing Los Angeles Police Department policy of limiting cooperation with federal immigration officers in dealing with undocumented immigrants. This is a linchpin of the national “sanctuary city” movement. He and the Los Angeles City Council are working on ordinances to strengthen these procedures, and Garcetti’s office has reached out to help immigrants in other ways.
Thomas Homan, acting director of the Department of Homeland Security, has threatened officials of cities like Los Angeles. “We got to take these sanctuary cities on,” Homan told Fox News. “We got to take them to court. And we got to start charging some of these politicians with crimes.” The Trump administration is withholding law enforcement grants to cities that won’t cooperate. Los Angeles and other cities have gone to court to fight Trump.
Garcetti is unperturbed about the threat of going to jail with other pro-immigrant mayors, such as Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento. “I guess Steinberg could be your cellmate,” I said.
“A pretty good cellmate,” Garcetti replied. “We’re close friends. If I got to go, I’ll go with him. Get a lot of reading done. Send us the classics.”
Joking aside, Garcetti sees the jail threat as reflective of the Trump administration’s hostility toward democracy. “We’ve had to address threats. You know, the latest: One of his lackeys was saying people like me should be arrested. These (threats) are deeply un-American—their attacks on immigrants, on defenders of immigrants, cities that do a good job of writing the next chapter of the American immigrants’ stories.”
Does he think racism is behind Trump policies?
“Yea,” Garcetti said. “[Through] ignorance or calculation—I think racism comes from both. … It comes out of a place where he has offered an American identity that is an exclusionary identity.
“You have to remember this is the foundation of his campaign for president,” he noted. “It started with a speech talking about Mexicans being rapists and drug dealers, and he very effectively flipped a lot of districts which had gone for Obama but have [since then] had higher immigrant numbers.”
Garcetti said Trump and his team could actually hurt enforcement of immigration laws.
“They can cause disruption,” he said. “They can never do what they say. In Southern California, it is estimated there are 2 million undocumented immigrants, and they have 400 ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] agents. Let’s say they doubled that. I know from experience with LAPD and others, when you try too quickly to hire people in law enforcement, in a good economy, you have to lower the bar, and you have to get people who are going to cost that agency money, who are going to make missteps.
“But quality aside, even if they were able to double it, which I doubt they can in this economy, that’s 800 people to try to find 2 million. … Wouldn’t you want your ICE agents going after the most dangerous criminals out there—the sharks, as I call them? That takes a lot of dedicated work to find a shark in the ocean. It’s not easy.
“What they are doing now is saying, ‘We’re not going after sharks any more.’”
Rather, Garcetti said, under Trump, ICE is going after all undocumented immigrants, and in the process, he is missing those who are dangerous. That, said Garcetti, is “making us less safe because you didn’t get the bad person off the street.”
Garcetti’s views on immigrants are informed by his background. His mother, Sukey Garcetti, is the daughter of Harry Roth, whose family fled Russia to escape the czar’s anti-Semitic pogroms. His father is former Los Angeles County District Attorney Gil Garcetti, whose own father was brought to California as a child refugee of the Mexican Revolution and grew up to become a barber.
“My family has lived the American dream,” he said. “If Donald Trump had been in charge, they would have been prevented from that. And what a poorer country we would have been.” Many people, he notes, can tell “that story of struggle—people fleeing anti-Semitism, people fleeing the Mexican Revolution. And this country didn’t ask them about their past. It only gave them a route to work hard for the future. Nothing came easy. My grandfather (from Mexico) had to fight in World War II, he had to scrap, he didn’t graduate from high school. He saved money, he and my grandma opened up this barber shop when she was working as a meatpacker on the night shift. I literally wouldn’t be here without them.
“So when I think about this issue, I’m not doing this because I have a huge [Latino] population [in Los Angeles]. I wouldn’t be mayor of this city if my grandfather hadn’t had that opportunity. And here you have [Trump], who is married to an immigrant, who had married two immigrants in his life, whose own son’s mother is an immigrant to this country, his own flesh and blood.
“We want leadership in this country that is a partner to immigrants, not who scapegoats them,” Garcetti concluded.
“Scapegoating equals racism?” I asked.
“Absolutely,” he replied. “In this case, it is when scapegoating is of a particular ethnic group. More than that, this is a man who is not comfortable with embracing what’s different. … The future of this world and the beauty of this country has always been that difference. We embrace it. We run to it.”
On Monday, Garcetti reiterated his support for immigrants and his opposition to Trump after the president announced plans to deport almost 200,000 Salvadorans who came to the U.S. as refugees from natural disaster or civil strife.
“America has always been a place of refuge and healing for people fleeing violence or rebuilding their lives after a natural disaster,” Garcetti said in a statement. “Ending temporary protected status for El Salvador is a cruel, disastrous strike against that legacy—forcing hundreds of thousands of people already living in this country to make anguished decisions about the safety, security, and wellbeing of their families. This order creates hardship and uncertainty for young Americans who are making extraordinary contributions in the only home they know. L.A. will always stand with the immigrant community.”
We’ll see if Garcetti makes that stand on the national stage in 2020.