Attorney General Jeff Sessions opened a new front in the legal war over California’s sanctuary city policies Tuesday, asking a federal court to halt three state laws that prohibit police and businesses from cooperating with federal agents.
The lawsuit, filed in federal district court in Sacramento, says those laws not only trample on the federal government’s powers to set national immigration policy, but endanger communities by freeing criminals back onto the streets.
“The Department of Justice and Trump administration are going to fight these unjust, unfair and unconstitutional policies that have been imposed on you,” Mr. Sessions will say in a speech Wednesday to the California Peace Officers Association, where he’s expected to announce the lawsuit.
The move comes just days after California Attorney General Xavier Becerra accused the Trump administration of “terrorizing” immigrant communities with an enforcement sweep that netted more than 200 deportable migrants in the state’s bay area.
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf sparked controversy after she tipped immigrants off to the sweep. Federal officials said she may have helped as many as 800 criminal migrants escape deportation officers.
The White House confirmed last week that Ms. Schaaf is under investigation for her actions.
Sanctuary cities have been a major focus of President Trump, who in 2015, just after announcing his presidential bid, seized on the killing of Kate Steinle by an illegal immigrant who had been released from jail under San Francisco’s sanctuary policy.
But Mr. Trump’s attempts to crack down on sanctuaries have sparked a backlash, with analysts saying that hundreds of jurisdictions embraced sanctuary policies in 2017, chiefly in reaction to Mr. Trump.
California has led the way, with Gov. Jerry Brown signing three separate pieces of legislation last year limiting cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. Border Patrol.
Senate Bill 54, which took effect Jan. 1, bars state and local law enforcement officials from asking people their immigration status, prohibits them from holding migrants for pickup by ICE, and limits how much information they’re allowed to provide to ICE officers.
Assembly Bill 103, which became law last summer, requires a state-run inspection of migrants held in federal prisons — including the circumstances of their arrest and their processing. The new lawsuit says those requests are improper, and the state has “no lawful interest in investigating federal law enforcement efforts.”
Assembly Bill 450, which took effect Jan. 1, prohibits private employers from voluntarily sharing information with federal immigration officials or allowing officers in private areas of their business.
Mr. Becerra issued a warning earlier this year that he intended to prosecute businesses under Assembly Bill 450. violators could face fines ranging between $2,000 and $10,000.
Mr. Becerra and Mr. Brown are both named as defendants in the new lawsuit.
Mr. Brown, in a statement Tuesday, said SB54 still allowed Homeland Security agents to enforce federal laws in California. And he said local sheriffs can still allow deportation officers access to their jails, if they wish.
“At a time of unprecedented political turmoil, Jeff Sessions has come to California to further divide and polarize America,” he said. “Jeff, these political stunts may be the norm in Washington, but they don’t work here. SAD!!”
State Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, author of SB54, predicted California would prevail in court “based on Jeff Session’s[sic] track record in courts so far.”
“Bottom line: California will NOT help President Trump, Jeff Sessions or [ICE chief] Thomas Homan rip children from the arms of their mothers and fathers,” the lawmaker tweeted. “Here in CA, we embrace our historic diversity, and we will do everything in our legal power to protect it.”
A senior Department of Justice official said they targeted California because the laws recently went into effect, but said they are reviewing laws in other states, too.
The California lawsuit says the state is attempting to interfere with federal immigration enforcement.
Much of the complaint hinges on a 2012 Supreme Court ruling where the justices overturned part of Arizona’s state immigration laws, saying states couldn’t be allowed to create a patchwork of policies.
In that case, Arizona had sought to help boost enforcement by pushing local police to inquire about immigration status, and had sought to impose its own punishments on illegal immigrants. The high court ruled the state’s independent penalties amounted to interference with federal policy.
The Trump administration says that if Arizona’s efforts to help federal authorities were illegal, then California’s efforts to “obstruct” also are illegal.
“Based on its enumerated powers and its constitutional power as a sovereign to control and conduct relations with foreign nations, the United States has broad authority to establish immigration laws, the execution of which the States cannot obstruct or discriminate against,” the lawsuit says, citing that 2012 case.
The State Department also weighed in as part of the lawsuit, saying that California’s laws are interfering with the government’s efforts to get other countries to take back their illegal immigrants.
Analysts disagree over the effects of sanctuary policies.
Some studies have concluded they are safer than other cities that lack sanctuary policies. Immigration enforcement advocates argue those conclusions are skewed, and draw a correlation between sanctuaries and safety that the data doesn’t support.
This week’s lawsuit is just the latest in a running battle over sanctuary policies.
The Trump administration last year announced plans to withhold federal grant money from jurisdictions deemed to refuse cooperation with ICE. Cities in California, Pennsylvania and Illinois have all won rulings limiting those efforts.
But earlier this week a judge in California did allow the Justice Department to withhold a $1 million grant from San Francisco, at least for now. The judge said the money was small enough, and the case complicated enough, that he wasn’t ready to rule the Trump administration had overstepped its bounds.