Guerrero: If Newsom wants to be the anti-Trump, here's his chance

California Gov. Gavin Newsom responds to a question while meeting with reporters
Gov. Gavin Newsom won support from Latinos during last year's failed recall. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Gov. Gavin Newsom has embraced the role of migrants advocate on the national stage, dueling with Republican governors who are trying to score points with xenophobic voters by transporting asylum seekers out of their states to liberal destinations.

But his defense of migrants abused by GOP leaders comes at a puzzling time for California immigrants awaiting his signature on a bill that would protect tens of thousands of them from abuse. Many fear he’ll veto it later this month.

“He’s criticizing another governor for being anti-immigrant, but he’s doing the same here in the state,” Xochitl Núñez, a 52-year-old single mother and Tulare farmworker from Mexico, told me. “He’s doing the same with farmworkers.”

Núñez is one of thousands of people who marched 335 miles in triple-digit heat with the United Farm Workers last month to pressure Newsom to sign Assembly Bill 2183, which passed the state Legislature with overwhelming support. The bill would make it easier for state farmworkers to unionize by allowing them to vote by mail in union elections if an employer agrees not to interfere with the effort. If an employer won’t agree, voting would occur through a union-led petition process.

More than 70% of farmworkers are undocumented, which means they’re often vulnerable to forms of retaliation that jeopardize their existence in this country, where many have U.S.-citizen children, homes, jobs and other deep roots. They don’t just fear losing their jobs; they fear being deported.

Last year, Newsom vetoed a previous version of the bill, blaming “inconsistencies and procedural issues related to the collection and review of ballot cards.” The bill was later revised to include 90% of the changes that his team requested, according to the United Farm Workers. This year, Newsom’s spokeswoman Erin Mellon cited continuing concerns about election integrity.

But on Thursday, she sounded more optimistic. She told me: “The administration is in ongoing conversations with labor leaders to reach an implementable agreement that allows farmworkers to effectively organize.”

Meanwhile, the farmworker Núñez and others are holding vigil outside the state Capitol.

While marching, Núñez’s feet swelled so much that her toenails fell off. One of her many blisters won’t heal. She missed work and is behind two months on rent and other bills. But it’s worth it for her. She has experienced sexual harassment in the fields and knows it’s a common problem that will persist with impunity without change.

Another farmworker from Mexico, 47-year-old Cynthia Burgos, a Bakersfield resident, told me about her rape in the fields and lack of consequences for the perpetrator. “If something happens to you, the ranchero says, ‘Leave,’” she told me. “On the other hand, if we had a union, they’d have to fight for our rights.”

The farmworkers have powerful allies: President Biden himself issued a four-paragraph statement supporting the bill for Labor Day. “It is long past time that we ensure America’s farmworkers and other essential workers have the same right to join a union as other Americans,” he said. Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also expressed support for the bill. And last Wednesday, guitarist Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine performed outside the Capitol in solidarity with the people holding vigil there.

Newsom’s attention has largely been elsewhere.

“This is absolutely sick — profiteering off of the trafficking of children sounds a whole lot like the business of coyotes,” he tweeted a day after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis flew dozens of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, a Massachusetts vacation hub popular with Democrats. The relocation under false pretenses prompted a class-action lawsuit last week. A Texas sheriff is also investigating.

Newsom was quick to demand action. He asked the Justice Department to launch a probe and challenged DeSantis to a debate. “I’ll bring my hair gel. You bring your hairspray,” he tweeted, coopting a DeSantis jab about vanity.

Newsom’s pro-immigrant stance in a country that is increasingly hostile to brown and Black newcomers isn’t just rhetorical. He has approved healthcare for undocumented seniors and COVID-19 aid for people regardless of immigration status. Nativists launched last year’s recall effort in part because they saw a threat to the xenophobia at the heart of Trumpism. Latino voters, seeing an ally in Newsom, helped defeat the recall.

If the governor’s greatest strength is the immigrant community behind him, his Achilles’ heel is his elite air, which Republicans are eager to exploit, however hypocritically. That air is inseparable from his coziness with growers, given his background as a vineyard and winery owner. By turning his back on farmworkers, Newsom would be giving Republicans real fodder to attack him.

And he’d be behaving like a typical establishment Democrat: defending migrants only when it’s an opportunity to bash Trump and his ilk.

He should sign the bill not only because it’s politically smart, but also because it’s right to protect farmworkers. “They work very hard to put food on our tables, and sometimes they don’t have enough to put food on their table,” United Farm Workers President Teresa Romero told me. “That is wrong.”

Last week, Newsom gave closing remarks at a climate summit in New York about the wildfires, drought and extreme heat in California. Not once did he mention the immigrant farmworkers disproportionately suffering under these conditions. When he spoke of the strength of the state’s economy, he neglected to mention that the backbone of it are the very people whose demands he’s hesitating to meet.

Newsom must learn to more consistently inhabit the role that California delivered to him: the anti-Trump. He can be a true advocate for the people who’ve made this nation strong.

@jeanguerre

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.