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Trump administration sues California over immigration, sanctuary state policies

Feds argue obstruction: Gov. Brown calls it a “political stunt”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks at the Justice Department, on February 2, 2018 in Washington, DC. The Justice Department brought a lawsuit against the state of California over immigration policies.
Marc Wilson/Getty Images

The Trump administration announced yesterday afternoon that it will target three California laws it argues interfere with federal immigration enforcement, filing a lawsuit in federal court against state officials. The Justice Department says the laws, “reflect a deliberate effort by California to obstruct the United States’ enforcement of federal immigration law.”

The move is the latest, and most serious, effort the Justice Department has taken against so-called “sanctuary city” or “sanctuary state” laws. It’s an escalation of the battle over federal and local immigration enforcement, one of the first issues the Trump administration addressed after the president took office last year.

The suit names the state of California, including the state’s governor, Jerry Brown, and attorney general Xavier Becerra. Governor Brown called the move a “political stunt” meant to “further divide and polarize America.”

Like heads of other sanctuary city jurisdictions, the California leaders being sued by the Justice Department believe the federal government can’t compel state and local police to enforce federal law, and that openness over immigration status encourages the undocumented to work with police and report other crimes, creating a safer environment.

None of the California policies in question prevent a police department from pursuing or arresting an undocumented immigrant who commits a crime.

“In California, our state laws work in concert with federal law,” Attorney General Becerra told reporters during a call Tuesday night. “Our teams work together to go after drug dealers and go after gang violence. What we won’t do is change from being focused on public safety. We’re in the business of public safety, not deportation.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who plans to speak today at a Law Enforcement Legislative Day event in Sacramento, believes the California laws in question are “unjust, unfair, and unconstitutional,” according to prepared remarks reported by the California Sun.

The federal government, he will say, is “fighting to make your jobs safer and to help you reduce crime in America. And I believe that we are going to win.”

He has previously called sanctuary cities “a trafficker, smuggler, or predator’s best friend.”

According to the New York Times, Justice Department officials haven’t ruled out the possibility of other lawsuits against local governments they believe pass laws that limit federal authority on immigration enforcement. Colorado, Illinois, New Mexico, Oregon and Vermont have state sanctuary laws, as do more than 300 municipalities across the country.

Map of sanctuary cities, counties, and states in the United States as of January 2016
Center for Immigration Studies

The suit targets three state laws. The California Values Act limits the ability of state and local agencies from sharing information with federal officials about criminals or suspects unless they’re convicted of a serious crime. The Immigrant Worker Protection Act prohibits local business from sharing employee records with federal officials without a court order or subpoena.

In addition, California’s state budget bill also banned new contracts for immigration detention and gave the state attorney general power to monitor all state immigration detention centers.

Previous actions by the federal government sought to strip federal law enforcement funding from municipalities that didn’t abide by Justice Department edicts regarding immigration enforcement. Federal judges in Chicago, San Francisco, and Philadelphia have thus far have rejected these arguments, ruling that the federal government couldn’t retroactively add conditions to federal grant money.

During a speech at the National Association of State Attorneys General in late February, Sessions noted that legal actions taken by states and cities against administration policies have led to 20 nationwide injunctions, more than any other presidential administration.

The term can be a bit vague, but in general, “sanctuary city” refers to a city or municipality that refuses to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement. Some have official policies that prevent law enforcement officials from asking about the immigration status of residents, and others refuse to hold undocumented immigrants in jail past their scheduled release dates. None of these policies prevent a police department from pursuing or arresting an undocumented immigrant who commits a crime.

Los Angeles was the first city to adopt a Sanctuary City policy in 1979. These policies became popular nationwide during the Obama administration, which deported a record number of immigrants.