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    Elon Musk targeted a controversial California immigration bill. Now it's shelved.

    By By Lara Korte,


    SACRAMENTO, California — State Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer pulled a controversial immigration bill off a committee agenda this week, temporarily sparing Democrats from having to choose sides on a red-hot political issue during a presidential election year.

    The legislation would help undocumented immigrants with serious or violent felony convictions avoid deportation using state-funded legal services — a provision that drew fierce blowback before Jones-Sawyer could adequately prepare his argument.

    In an interview Tuesday, the lawmaker acknowledged it was unclear whether he had the votes and suggested he won’t bring it back until he does.

    "Let me count my votes and see what I have," he said. "I don't waste people's time."

    California lawmakers have long prided themselves on supporting undocumented immigrants, acting as a counterweight to the policies of the Trump administration following the 2016 election and, just this year, providing health care to undocumented immigrants of all ages despite a gaping budget deficit.

    But the issues of immigration enforcement and crime have become politically explosive in recent months amid a sharp increase in people crossing into the U.S., which has strained border cities and blue states . Democrats, from big-city mayors to President Joe Biden, are feeling the heat — and are under pressure to shift to the right.

    Proponents of the latest attempt to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom have made California’s undocumented immigrant health care spending one of their central rallying points as they try to raise money and gather signatures to put their effort on the ballot.

    Biden tried to address a campaign vulnerability on immigration by brokering a bipartisan deal in Congress to tighten border security. But Republicans turned against it en masse , and the bill was slammed by some Democrats, including California Sen. Alex Padilla , as it did not include a path to residency for those brought to the U.S. as children. Biden said Monday he’s still holding out hope that Congress will act, after being asked whether he would take executive action .

    The Biden administration also quietly resisted plans by the University of California to hire undocumented students for campus jobs — seeing it as a challenge to federal law during an election year. UC has put the plan on hold.

    The California legal assistance bill is seen as a long shot, but it could bring heightened attention to Newsom and Democrats, several of whom declined to weigh in on the legislation.

    The groups behind it — the California Immigrant Policy Center, the Central American Resource Center, the Immigrant Legal Resource Center and the Vera Institute of Justice — argue that withholding legal assistance from undocumented immigrants because of their criminal histories “unduly re-punishes them for convictions for which they have already served their time.”

    Jones-Sawyer said he may still bring the proposal back for a hearing, and that he was looking for a sympathetic face to help sell the bill. Assembly Judiciary Chair Ash Kalra said he would support the legislation if Jones-Sawyer wanted to bring it forward. (Jones-Sawyer said he pulled it from Tuesday's agenda at the last minute because his mother was having emergency surgery.)

    The Los Angeles lawmaker built his political career around progressive criminal justice policies, and has acted as a bulwark against attempts to roll back some of the liberal achievements of the past decade. He is terming out of the Legislature this year, and last week finished a distant last in his bid for Los Angeles City Council after being backed by criminal justice groups and labor organizers.

    Prior to Tuesday’s hearing, Republicans had latched onto the bill and stirred up a fury on social media — garnering the attention of conservative X accounts and Elon Musk, who shared a post about the bill and asked: “When is enough enough?”

    Jones-Sawyer said he wants to be sure he's making a clear case for the legislation, noting examples of Republicans being able to out-message Democrats with a more compelling narrative.

    "You get your ass whooped because somebody has a better slogan," he said.

    Like this content? Consider signing up for POLITICO’s California Playbook newsletter.

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