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Department of Justice sues California over sanctuary state laws

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Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks during a news conference announcing new tools to combat the opioid crisis at the Department of Justice in Washington D.C., on Nov. 29, 2017. (Ting Shen/Xinhua/Sipa USA/TNS)

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration, seeking to force a defiant California to cooperate with its agenda of stepped-up immigrant deportations, went to federal court Tuesday to invalidate three state laws — the administration’s most direct challenge yet to the state’s policies.

Administration officials say the three laws in question, all passed by the Legislature last year, blatantly obstruct federal immigration law and thus violate the Constitution’s supremacy clause, which gives federal law precedence over state enactments.

“The Department of Justice and the Trump administration are going to fight these unjust, unfair, and unconstitutional policies that are imposed on you,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions plans to tell a meeting of the California Peace Officers Association in Sacramento, Calif., on Wednesday, according to excerpts of his remarks released by the Justice Department. “We are fighting to make your jobs safer and to help you reduce crime in America. And I believe that we are going to win.”

The laws make it a crime for business owners to voluntarily help federal agents find and detain undocumented workers, prohibit local law enforcement from alerting immigration agents when detainees are released from custody, and create a state inspection program for federal immigration detention centers. Administration officials, who briefed reporters before the suit was filed, said other states that are pursuing laws similar to California’s are also likely to be targeted in court.

The suit, which administration lawyers planned to file in federal court in Sacramento, considerably raises the tension between the administration and the most populous state in the country. California officials consistently have sought to stymie Trump’s efforts to impose policies incompatible with the more permissive vision of the state’s leaders and the liberal leanings of its electorate. Many state and local officials in California say the administration’s stepped-up deportation efforts are making communities less safe and undermining local economies.

The case will test the power of the Trump administration to force California police departments and local governments to cooperate with deportations and other aggressive enforcement actions targeting people who entered the country illegally or overstayed their visas. It reflects the administration’s limited tolerance for state’s rights when states want to go in a sharply different direction than the administration.

California officials were preparing for the suit even before it was filed. After the Justice Department announced Sessions would be making a major announcement in Sacramento, state leaders expressed confidence that Washington’s legal attacks would fail.

“We’ll see what the courts say,” said Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, a former legislative leader.

“So far the administration’s record there is not stellar,” he said, referring to the administration’s repeated losses in court. “We didn’t pass these laws to protect people with serious criminal backgrounds. We are protecting our communities from immigration agents intimidating people and overreaching in very serious ways.”

The administration, however, could be in a stronger position in this case than in previous court battles over immigration issues, including court rulings against early versions of Trump’s travel ban and against efforts to cut off some federal money to cities with so-called sanctuary policies.

In many other cases, the administration has been trying to swiftly unravel or reshape well-established environmental, workplace or immigration regulations that were grounded in years of case law or voluminous administrative proceedings. In this case, it is California that is arguably in uncharted legal territory, imposing barriers aimed at undermining federal law enforcement efforts.

Administration officials charge that the state measures not only hinder their ability to carry out federal law, but also put immigration agents and communities at risk. The suit includes a declaration from Immigration and Customs Enforcement Acting Director Thomas Homan, who said that the inability of ICE officers to go to local lockups to pick up immigrants who have been detained by local police agencies forces them to hunt down suspects in more dangerous settings. SB 54, one of the three challenged state laws, prohibits state and local police agencies from notifying federal officials in many cases when immigrants potentially subject to deportation are about to be released from custody.

When the law was under consideration in the Legislature, former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who headed the Justice Department in the Obama administration and now represents the state Senate, wrote a letter defending the measure’s constitutionality. The federal government has the authority to enforce its immigration laws, but doesn’t have the power to draft California officials into helping, he said. California has the right as a sovereign state to decide how to allocate resources and can’t be required to “divert those resources and compromise its security to enforce federal immigration laws,” he wrote.

Justice Department officials cited several instances in recent weeks in which, they said, the new law prevented federal immigration agents from taking custody of people arrested for serious crimes. Officials in Ventura County, for example, refused to turn over a suspect arrested for sexual abuse of a minor, they said. A request to transfer custody of a car-theft suspect was declined by Sacramento County jail officials, and Alameda County jail officials refused to turn over a convicted drug dealer arrested for felony drug possession while armed, they said.

State officials say those suspects are the exception and do not reflect those the law is designed to protect, who are primarily people jailed for low-level offenses.

California officials have been unflinching in enforcing the new laws, despite warnings from the Trump administration that they would create a confrontation. In January, state Attorney General Xavier Becerra put employers on notice that they would be prosecuted if they did not follow the state’s new Immigrant Worker Protection Act, AB 450, which prohibits businesses from voluntarily sharing information about workers with federal immigration agents. The law also requires that employers alert workers if their records are going to be inspected by federal officials.

Business owners who voluntarily assist with federal immigration operations will face fines of up to $10,000, Becerra warned. The Trump administration lawsuit says state officials have acknowledged that such threats are designed to frustrate immigration enforcement actions and that the law puts private businesses in an impossible situation: They are being required by the state to rebuff federal agents.

The third law under challenge, AB 103, imposes state inspections on federal detention facilities. The measure passed in response to reports of rampant mistreatment and abuse in federal detention facilities, many of which are run by private companies that act as federal contractors. Since the law took effect, the state has been conducting inspections at the facilities and demanding access to inmate documents that the administration says the state has no authority to review.

“California has chosen to purposefully contradict the will and responsibility of the Congress to protect our Homeland,” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in a statement in which she thanked Sessions for his efforts to “uphold the rule of law and protect American communities.”

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