As former President Donald Trump ramped up his efforts to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, California Democrats pushed back.
“We've got to take a stand for something,” said Sen. Bill Dodd (D–Napa) at a state Senate hearing in 2017.
He was speaking in support of Senate Bill 30, which would have prohibited the state from hiring companies that worked on the border wall. Nearly two dozen Democratic lawmakers voted to pass the bill out of the state Senate. The legislation was not ultimately signed into law, but it served as a line in the political sand.
Fast forward to 2021, and that scenario is a reality. A recent CapRadio investigation revealed the Newsom administration is paying SLSCO, the company that built Trump’s border wall in California, up to $350 million for COVID-19 services, primarily medical staffing at vaccination sites. Some lawmakers are criticizing the contract and the company, but the majority who previously supported a ban on such contracts are silent on the issue.
CapRadio reached out to over a dozen sitting lawmakers, and several former lawmakers, who supported the legislation, inquiring if they opposed the state’s contract with SLSCO.
Only Sens. Scott Wiener (D–San Francisco) and Steven Bradford (D–Gardena) weighed in. The rest declined to comment on the contract or did not respond to CapRadio’s request.
Wiener says he still opposes awarding state contracts to border wall companies, but does not fault the Newsom administration. “I fault the Legislature for not passing that bill,” he said. When asked if he believed the state should cancel the SLSCO contract, he added, “It makes sense to transition away from it.”
In an email, Bradford called the wall “a symbol of fear-mongering” and said “there are plenty of other deserving and diverse companies that we can be contracting with.” His office would not say whether he supports canceling the contract with SLSCO.
Sens. Toni Atkins, Bill Dodd, Ben Hueso, Connie Leyva, Henry Stern, Anthony Portantino, Ben Allen, Bob Hertzberg, Bob Wieckowski, Mike Mcguire, Nancy Skinner and Richard Pan declined to comment or did not respond to CapRadio’s request.
Former Sens. Holly Mitchell and Kevin De León did not respond to a request for comment.
CapRadio asked the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) if the contract is still active, but the department refused to comment.
CapRadio’s investigation revealed the state awarded a $10 million no-bid contract to SLSCO in January that quickly ballooned as the state needed thousands of medical staff to administer vaccines.
Some personnel provided by SLSCO screened, tested and vaccinated migrants at the border — not far from where the company built a wall to keep migrants out of the country. Other medical staff from SLSCO were sent to public health departments, mass vaccination sites and health organizations around the state. Some worked at community clinics that delivered services to immigrant and undocumented communities, unbeknownst to clinic leaders.
At one point, the contract was worth up to $1 billion. CDPH slashed it to $350 million in mid-October, not long after CapRadio began asking questions about the agreement and SLSCO’s background.
CDPH has declined CapRadio’s interview requests. In an email, the department said SLSCO was “the largest supplier of bilingual staff” for the state’s vaccination effort and contributed to the “state’s equity campaign that resulted in more Californians in underserved communities getting vaccinated.”
Immigration advocates rejected this rationale for contracting with a border wall company, and criticized the state for not working more closely with community health groups that have established connections with immigrant communities.
SB30 garnered national attention several years ago, when it was seen as one of the ways California lawmakers were working to foil Trump’s agenda. But some of that vigor has since fizzled.
“This wall represents the new administration's commitment to bring out the worst in humanity — hatred, xenophobia and exclusion,” said then-Sen. Ricardo Lara, who authored the bill, during a committee hearing in 2017. “SB30 asks you to reject this destructive notion and to defend our California values.”
Lara now serves as California’s Insurance Commissioner.
“Commissioner Lara stands by his previous statements and has nothing new to add,” said Michael Soller, Deputy Insurance Commissioner for Communications, in an email.
Soller would not answer specific questions about whether Lara believes the contract with SLSCO should be canceled.
Wiener said he still supports the idea of banning contracts with border wall companies, but said he does not know if any lawmakers plan on introducing a bill in the coming session.
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