SFGATE.com March 6, 2018
After struggling in court for the last year to strip federal funds from California and sanctuary cities like San Francisco for refusing to aid federal immigration agents, the Trump administration filed suit Tuesday accusing the state of unconstitutionally interfering with immigration enforcement.
Three state laws enacted in 2017 “reflect a deliberate effort by California to obstruct the United States’ enforcement of federal immigration laws,” the Justice Department said in a lawsuit in federal court in Sacramento. The suit seeks to overturn all three laws.
In remarks prepared for delivery Wednesday to a law enforcement gathering in Sacramento, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the Trump administration would “fight these unjust, unfair and unconstitutional policies that have been imposed on you.”
So far, though, his arguments have made little headway in federal court, where judges in San Francisco and elsewhere have rejected efforts to strip federal funds from sanctuary jurisdictions that refuse to comply with Justice Department edicts.
The suits by California, San Francisco and other sanctuary jurisdictions challenge conditions the department has sought to attach to federal funding, while the Justice Department’s suit directly challenges the California laws. But the central issue in all of them appears to be whether sanctuary laws are a proper exercise of state and local government’s authority over law enforcement or an unconstitutional intrusion by those governments into federal immigration law.
Sessions’ suit, though filed in a different court, could be consolidated with the California suit and transferred to San Francisco if the judge in that case decides the issues are the same.
Gov. Jerry Brown, a defendant in the new lawsuit, said in a statement, “At a time of unprecedented political turmoil, Jeff Sessions has come to California to further divide and polarize America. Jeff, these political stunts may be the norm in Washington, but they won’t work here.”
State Attorney General Xavier Becerra, also a defendant in the suit, responded with his own overture to law enforcement. “We’ll continue to stand up for our police and sheriffs whose funding has been threatened by the Trump administration” in the federal grants, he told reporters.
Besides targeting sanctuary laws, Sessions and others in the administration have denounced local officials like Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, who publicly warned the immigrant community Feb. 24 of an impending Bay Area raid by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Acting ICE director Thomas Homan, who previously threatened pro-sanctuary politicians with criminal prosecution, compared Schaaf to “a gang lookout.” President Trump’s press secretary said the Justice Department was looking into Schaaf’s actions.
Schaaf said Tuesday that the Trump administration “has tried to portray all immigrants as villains. We know that is a racist lie.”
Sanctuary laws predate the Trump administration — they spread nationwide during the presidency of Barack Obama, who deported record numbers of immigrants — and have won support from some law enforcement groups because they encourage noncitizens to report crimes without fear of deportation.
Sessions, on the other hand, has contended the policies protect criminals — describing sanctuary cities as “a trafficker, smuggler, or predator’s best friend” — and has sought to withhold federal funds from their law enforcement programs.
He has particularly targeted one new California law, SB54, which took effect this year. Except for undocumented immigrants who are being held on serious criminal charges, it prohibits police from notifying federal agents that an immigrant is about to be released from custody. The law also prohibits jails from holding migrants for federal agents, bars police from asking detainees about their immigration status and denies immigration officers access to local jails.
“These provisions impermissibly prohibit even the most basic cooperation with federal officials” and create “an obstacle to the United States’ enforcement of the immigration laws,” the Justice Department argued in Tuesday’s lawsuit.
“BRING IT ON!” the author of SB54, state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, responded in a Twitter posting. He said Sessions was suing the state because “we refuse to help the Trump administration tear apart honest, hardworking immigrant families.”
The suit also challenged a recent state law that prohibits private employers, in most cases, from allowing workplace immigration raids unless the agent has a judicial warrant, and another law barring cities and counties from signing contracts with the federal government to house immigration detainees in local jails.
Details aside, the Trump administration has used such cases to stir up “anti-immigrant sentiment supporting the administration,” said Christopher Lasch, a University of Denver immigration law professor.
“The administration hopes that by destabilizing the law it will cause jurisdictions that may be politically more on the fence to capitulate,” he said.
So far, the courts have repeatedly ruled against Sessions’ attempts to withhold federal funds, saying the Trump administration could not penalize sanctuary cities by imposing conditions on federal grants that Congress has never written into law.
In April, U.S. District Judge William Orrick III of San Francisco barred the administration from carrying out Trump’s threat to withdraw billions of dollars in federal funds from sanctuary cities.
In September, a federal judge in Chicago issued a nationwide injunction against Sessions’ attempt to deny federal grants to local governments that refused to notify immigration agents before releasing undocumented immigrants from custody, or give agents access to their jails. A federal judge in Philadelphia upheld that city’s sanctuary policies in November.
On Monday, Orrick gave Sessions a partial victory by allowing him to try to prove that the new California law illegally interferes with federal immigration enforcement. The judge told both sides to develop their arguments as the case proceeds, but he indicated little support so far for the Justice Department’s claim that sanctuary policies endanger the public.
“The federal government offers no evidence that there is any link between increases in crime and violence and imposing the certification conditions” on federal grants, Orrick said.
Those conditions include the provisions blocked by the judge in Chicago — requiring local governments that receive the grants to notify ICE before releasing immigrants and to allow immigration officers access to jails — and sections of the California law prohibiting local agencies from releasing personal information on undocumented immigrants in custody, including their planned release dates.
Sessions is speaking Wednesday at a Law Enforcement Legislative Day hosted by the California Peace Officers Association. Its executive director, Carol Leveroni, said Tuesday she was looking for some degree of federal-state reconciliation.
“We would hope for a pathway toward settling the conflicts between state and federal law,” Leveroni said. She described situations in which local police would work alongside immigration agents — like intercepting a drug-smuggling boat whose crew included undocumented immigrants — and said “law enforcement is looking for clarity,” not conflicts.
San Francisco Chronicle
staff writer Steve Rubenstein contributed to this report.