When California declared itself a “sanctuary state” in January 2018, it all but invited the Trump administration to retaliate. After all, President Donald Trump has made his disapproval of the sanctuary movement, which seeks to protect undocumented immigrants by limiting local law enforcement’s cooperation with federal immigration agents, abundantly clear. Shortly after taking office, he signed an executive order (currently on hold, having been blocked by federal courts) denying federal funds to cities that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration officials. Having put sanctuary cities on notice, there was no way the administration would allow California’s statewide embrace of the sanctuary movement go unanswered.
Jeff Sessions contentions
And answer it did, when, on March 6, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) sued California over the state’s sanctuary policies. The next day, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivered a speech in Sacramento, the California capital, denouncing the state’s actions to protect illegal immigrants from deportation. Sessions stressed the supremacy of federal immigration law over state and local statutes, saying, “There is no nullification. There is no secession. Federal law is ‘the supreme law of the land.’“
As Sessions implied, the DOJ lawsuit relies on the so-called Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which asserts that federal laws have precedence over state laws when the two are in conflict. The suit targets three California laws that the DOJ deems as unconstitutional interference in the federal government’s authority to regulate immigration. One bars employers from voluntarily assisting federal immigration agents and mandates that employers warn employees of any upcoming federal immigration raids. The second forbids state and local law enforcement from voluntarily notifying Homeland Security authorities about the release of undocumented immigrants in their custody. The third law gives California the authority to inspect federal facilities where the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) holds undocumented immigrants in custody.
California holds fast
California governor Jerry Brown and attorney general Xavier Becerra, both named as defendants in the suit, were quick to denounce the DOJ action. Brown called the suit “an act of war” and accused the DOJ of spreading falsehoods, saying, “We’ve never had Washington come to California and sue the state and make up lies.”
The governor and attorney general objected to the DOJ’s characterization of California’s laws as a threat to the safety of federal agents and the general public. In fact, the laws direct state and local law enforcement to cooperate with federal agencies in cases where an undocumented immigrant is subject to an outstanding criminal warrant or has been convicted of one of 800 serious crimes listed in the California Trust Act. Asserting that the California sanctuary laws seek only to protect residents’ civil rights and advance public safety, Becerra said, “California is in the business of public safety, not in the business of deportations.”
And so opens another chapter in the ongoing court battles over U.S. immigration policies.