SACRAMENTO, Calif. — U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions told California law enforcement officials Wednesday that a lawsuit he filed against the state challenges limits on cooperation with federal immigration authorities that are unconstitutional and defy common sense.
Sessions said several California state laws prevent U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers from making deportation arrests and singled out elected officials for their actions. He had particularly strong words for Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, who issued an unusual public warning last month that she was tipped off that an immigration operation was imminent, perhaps within 24 hours.
“How dare you?” he said of Schaaf at a California Peace Officers Association meeting in Sacramento. “How dare you needlessly endanger the lives of law enforcement just to promote your radical open borders agenda?”
The Justice Department, in a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday in Sacramento, is challenging three California laws that, among other things, bar police from asking people about their citizenship status or participating in federal immigration enforcement activities.
“It wasn’t something I chose to do, but I can’t sit by idly while the lawful authority of federal officers is being blocked by legislative acts and politicians,” Sessions said, straying from his prepared remarks.
More than a dozen attendees in a room of about 200 people gave Sessions a standing ovation.
California officials remained defiant, with Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown mimicking President Donald Trump on Twitter as he criticized Sessions for coming to Sacramento “to further divide and polarize America. Jeff, these political stunts may be the norm in Washington, but they don’t work here. SAD!!!”
Brown is named in the lawsuit along with Democratic Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who said the state is on firm legal footing.
“Our track record so far when it comes to any dispute with the federal government has been pretty good,” Becerra said.
The lawsuit is the latest salvo in an escalating feud between the Trump administration and California, which has resisted the president on issues from taxes to marijuana policy and defiantly refuses to help federal agents detain and deport immigrants. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has said it will increase its presence in California, and Sessions wants to cut off funding to jurisdictions that won’t cooperate.
“I say: Bring it on,” said California Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, a Los Angeles Democrat who wrote the so-called sanctuary state bill. Democratic Assembly Speaker Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon was among those suggesting that Sessions shouldn’t come at all.
The lawsuit was filed as the Justice Department also reviews Schaaf’s decision to warn of an immigration sweep in advance, which ICE said allowed hundreds of immigrants to elude detention. Schaaf said Tuesday the city would “continue to inform all residents about their constitutional rights.”
The California laws were passed in response to Trump’s promises to sharply ramp up the deportation of people living in the U.S. illegally.
One prohibits employers from letting immigration agents enter worksites or view employee files without a subpoena or warrant, an effort to prevent workplace raids. Another stops local governments from contracting with for-profit companies and ICE to hold immigrants. Justice Department officials said that violates the Constitution’s supremacy clause, which renders invalid state laws that conflict with federal ones.
The Supreme Court reinforced the federal government’s primacy in enforcing immigration law when it blocked much of Arizona’s tough 2010 immigration law on similar grounds. The high court found several key provisions undermined federal immigration law, though it upheld a provision requiring officers, while enforcing other laws, to question the immigration status of people suspected of being in the country illegally.
In this case, California “has chosen to purposefully contradict the will and responsibility of Congress to protect our homeland,” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in a statement.
Sessions, who has blamed sanctuary city policies for crime and gang violence, spoke Wednesday to groups representing police chiefs, sheriffs, district attorneys, narcotics investigators and the California Highway Patrol. Only the California State Sheriffs’ Association actively opposed the so-called sanctuary law.
Dozens of demonstrators chanted “stand up, fight back” and “no justice, no peace” outside the hotel where the meeting was held and some blocked traffic on a major thoroughfare. A heavy police presence was on hand.
Demonstrator Henry Gordon of Sacramento said he hopes Sessions gets the message that Californians will resist efforts to separate families and deport immigrants.
Becerra said local police will continue to work “in concert” with federal agents on issues related to drug enforcement and sex trafficking, but the Trump administration remains misguided in its attempts to encumber enforcement of California laws aimed at protecting its undocumented residents.
Becerra, who is up for election in November, said sanctuary policies increase public safety by promoting trust between immigrant communities and law enforcement, while allowing police resources to be used to fight other crimes.
“We’re in the business of public safety, not deportation, and we’ll continue to uphold all of the laws, including AB450 and SB54,” he said at a press briefing Tuesday in San Francisco shortly after the case was made public. “Our track record so far with this administration in court has been pretty good. We’ve proven that California is doing things the way it should, and also proven that it’s the Trump administration that has acted outside of the law.”
California has been at the forefront of litigation against the Trump administration and the Justice Department over immigration law, with a particular focus on using federal courts to protect the 2.6 million undocumented people living in the state. A federal judge ruled in favor of counties, including San Francisco, last year by prohibiting Sessions from withholding most federal funds to those jurisdictions with sanctuary policies.
The case is U.S. v. State of California, 2:18-at-00264, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of California (Sacramento).
The Associated Press and Bloomberg News contributed to this report.