A day after the Trump administration sued California over its new “sanctuary” laws, state officials pushed back hard, with Gov. Jerry Brown calling the move tantamount to “war.”
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the lawsuit, which he filed late Tuesday, at a police event near the Capitol in Sacramento on Wednesday. He said California leaders were scoring political points on the backs of law enforcement with immigration policies that hinder federal agents’ ability to enforce U.S. law.
“We’re simply asking the state and other sanctuary jurisdictions to stop actively obstructing federal law enforcement,” Sessions said as hundreds of protesters shouted outside. “Stop treating immigration agents differently from everybody else for the purpose of eviscerating border and immigration laws, and advancing an open-borders philosophy shared by only a few, the most radical extremists.”
Sessions accused local and state elected officials, including Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf and state Attorney General Xavier Becerra, of promoting an extreme agenda to frustrate federal agents. Becerra, a Brown appointee, is running for election this year, as is Schaaf.
At a joint press conference with Becerra after Sessions’ announcement, Brown said he does not believe in “open borders.” The laws being challenged in the suit were carefully crafted, he said, to balance the state’s right to manage public safety with federal authority to oversee immigration. He termed Sessions’ appearance a stunt.
“This is completely unprecedented, for the chief of law enforcement in the United States to come out here and engage in a political stunt, (and) make wild accusations, many of which are based on outright lies,” Brown said—unusually strong language for a governor who has largely been cautious in his criticism of the Trump administration.
“This is basically going to war against the state of California, the engine of the American economy. It’s not wise; it’s not right; and it will not stand,” Brown said.
Sessions’ visit is the latest political salvo between the Trump administration and California, whose Legislature has favored immigrant-friendly policies. Candidates for statewide office have been jockeying to position themselves as the best representative of the “resistance state.” Becerra has sued the administration more than two dozen times on a range of issues, including the president’s travel ban and ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allowed those brought to the country illegally as minors to remain here on a temporary basis.
In his 20-minute speech, Sessions said Schaaf, who recently tipped off the public about an imminent immigration raid, “has been actively seeking to help illegal aliens avoid apprehension by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement).” That has made the job of immigration agents more dangerous, he said—as outside protesters outside chanted, “Immigrants stay; Sessions go!”
“How dare you needlessly endanger the lives of our law enforcement officers to promote a radical open-border agenda,” said Sessions, who noted that the United States annually admits 1.1 million immigrants lawfully as permanent residents.
Within hours, Schaaf posted on Twitter that Oakland’s violent-crime rates have declined in the past five years, answering Sessions’ claim that crime generally is on the rise.
The U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit asks a federal court to strike down three state laws that, among other restrictions, require employers to keep information about their employees private without a court order; mandate inspections of immigration detention facilities; and bar local law enforcers from questioning people about their immigration status during routine interactions. The most contentious law does allow state officials to cooperate with federal agents when deportation is required for those who have committed any of 800 serious crimes.
Washington, D.C., will have to show that the state’s new laws infringe on its ability to enforce immigration rules, which may be hard to do, said Kevin R. Johnson, dean of the law school at the University of California, Davis.
“Ultimately, I think the state is likely to win most, if not all, of the lawsuit,” Johnson said.
Sessions said the sanctuary laws were designed to frustrate federal authorities. “Just imagine if a state passed a law forbidding employers from cooperating with OSHA in ensuring workplace safety, or the Environmental Protection Agency for looking out for polluters. Would you pass a law to do that?”
Sessions singled out Becerra, California’s top prosecutor, for threatening to fine business owners up to $10,000 if they cooperate with ICE agents. Becerra, who delivered a private address to the police group Wednesday, said at the press conference that “California has exercised its rights to define the circumstance where state and local law enforcement may participate in immigration enforcement.
“California is in the business of public safety. We’re not in the business of deportations,” he added, repeating statements he made Tuesday evening in the wake of the federal government’s filing. “I look forward to making these arguments in court.”
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat who is running for governor, had praised Schaaf for her warning, a move Sessions said was “an embarrassment to the proud state of California.”
In a Facebook post, Newsom responded: “Jeff Sessions called me an ‘embarrassment’ today. Coming from him, I take that as a compliment. But words don’t mean much when you and your family’s livelihoods are on the line.”
Some other candidates for statewide office were quick to offer their views on the lawsuit. State Senate leader Kevin De León, who is challenging Dianne Feinstein for her U.S. Senate seat and wrote one of the laws at issue, told reporters the suit is retribution against a state that resoundingly rejected Trump on Election Day.
“From Day 1, California has been in the crosshairs of this president,” he said. “We are on solid constitutional legal ground, so we welcome this lawsuit.”
Labor unions and immigration-rights organizations, meanwhile, decried Sessions’ announcement. The Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights said Washington was sowing “deception and fear mongering” to push an anti-immigrant agenda.
CALmatters reporters Laurel Rosenhall and Elizabeth Aguilera contributed to this report. CALmatters.org is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media venture explaining California policies and politics.