SACRAMENTO — The morning after the Trump administration sued California over its immigration policies, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions Wednesday appeared in downtown Sacramento to say states cannot defy the federal government when it comes to immigration.
About 200 protesters gathered in the blocks around the Kimpton Sawyer Hotel next to Golden 1 arena, where Sessions spoke at 8 a.m. to members of the California Peace Officers Association.
Inside the hotel, officers stood in plain clothes to listen to the nation’s top law enforcement official.
Fairfield Police Chief Randy Fenn said he was looking for clear direction from Sessions. “We don’t want to be caught in the middle, frankly.”
In a prepared text of his remarks released shortly before he began speaking, Sessions rebuked California officials for their continued efforts to thwart stepped-up deportations of undocumented immigrants, who make up a significant portion of the workforce here.
“A refusal to apprehend and deport those, especially the criminal element, effectively rejects all immigration law and creates an open borders system,” Sessions declared. “Open borders is a radical, irrational idea that cannot be accepted.
“There is no nullification. There is no secession,” Sessions said. “Federal law is ‘the supreme law of the land.’ I would invite any doubters to Gettysburg, and to the graves of John C. Calhoun and Abraham Lincoln.”
The lawsuit, filed Tuesday evening in the U.S. Eastern District of California, is the latest salvo in the ongoing battle between the Trump administration and state and local jurisdictions over how far cities and states can go to block their officers from enforcing federal immigration law.
The suit targets three California laws – Senate Bill 54, Assembly Bill 450 and Assembly Bill 103 – that the federal government say violate the supremacy clause of the Constitution and interfere with the enforcement of federal immigration laws.
It names both California Gov. Jerry Brown and Attorney General Xavier Becerra personally as defendants.
A Trump administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters Tuesday that the administration expects the lawsuit to be decided in the U.S. Supreme Court, because it does not expect favorable decisions in the lower courts in California.
Sessions Wednesday portrayed California as actively obstructing the efforts of ICE agents. He cited a case earlier this month in which Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf warned of pending ICE raids in the city.
Sessions said ICE failed to make about 800 arrests because of the warning.
“Her actions support those who flout our laws and boldly validate the illegality,” he said.
State officials continued to strike a defiant tone in response to the lawsuit. California Senate President pro Tempore Kevin de Leon, D- Los Angeles joined five members of the Sacramento City Council in the protest outside of the hotel where Sessions spoke.
“At a time of unprecedented political turmoil, Jeff Sessions has come to California to further divide and polarize America,” Governor Brown said in an emailed statement Tuesday. “Jeff, these political stunts may be the norm in Washington, but they don’t work here. SAD!!!”
De Leon said Tuesday that he was confident that Senate Bill 54 was on solid legal ground.
“With regards to SB 54, there was a reason why from the beginning of President Trump’s election that I hired the former U.S. Attorney General of the United States, Eric Holder, and that was to receive expert counsel on federal issues,” de Leon said. “If it galls the [current] U.S. Attorney General and the president that we won’t help enforce their racist, xenophobic immigration policies, then I say tough.”
Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, a former leader of the California Senate, echoed that defiance from Washington, D.C., where he had traveled for a business advocacy trip. “Their legal strategy around these issues has not been impressive, so whatever,” Steinberg said.
“If he wants to come to … further try to intimate the city, the state, but more importantly the Dreamers and the hard working families, he might as well cancel his flight, because we’re going to react in the same way we have reacted consistently,” Steinberg said. “We are a proud safe haven, a proud sanctuary city, a proud sanctuary state and we stand with our neighbors.”
California became a sanctuary state at the start of the year with implementation of Senate Bill 54, also called the California Values Act, which restricted how and when state law enforcement can interact with federal immigration authorities. The statute quickly became a flashpoint between the Trump administration and state lawmakers.
Assembly Bill 450 created rules for how employers must handle federal immigration audit requests, commonly called I-9 audits.
Assembly Bill 103 restricts the ability of jurisdictions to contract with ICE to house immigrant detainees in local jails. It also gives the state Attorney General the power to inspect ICE detention facilities.
The Department of Justice complaint spells out how provisions of each law have interfered with federal law enforcement efforts. DOJ attorneys argue AB 450 prohibits private employers from voluntarily cooperating with federal immigration officials, including those conducting worksite enforcement operations.
SB 54, they say, forces the release of immigrants who have already shown a willingness to engage in criminal activity. AB 103 tries to give California the power to regulate the federal government, they say, by allowing access to federal law enforcement records housed in detention facilities.
The lawsuit asks the court to issue preliminary injunctions to prohibit the enforcement of some of the state laws. Becerra said Tuesday night that he hadn’t had time to review the details but his office was prepared to fight the lawsuit.
“In California, our state laws work in concert with federal laws,” Becerra said. “No matter what happens in Washington, California will stay the course. We are following the Constitution and the federal law.”
Becerra framed the issue around states’ rights and the Tenth Amendment of the United States Constitution, an argument often used by the conservative right to combat federal policies viewed as intrusive.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Acting Director Thomas Homan has threatened increased enforcement in California following the enactment of SB 54. In the past few weeks, ICE has made a series of arrests in the state. Last week, more than 200 undocumented immigrants were detained across Northern California in a major enforcement action. About half of those detained had criminal records, according to ICE.
Sessions said laws that limit information sharing essentially force ICE officers into more dangerous operations where they have to confront those they’re seeking in the community where they could have greater access to weapons.
“That’s not just unconstitutional, it’s a plain violation of federal statute and common sense,” Sessions said.
— Anita Chabria, Stephen Magagnini and Nashelly Chavez, The Sacramento Bee