Jeff Sessions Escalates Immigration Fight with California Sanctuary Cities

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Mar 25, 2018

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SanctuaryAttorney General Jeff Sessions has escalated the battle of wills between President Trump’s administration and so-called Sanctuary Cities in California by filing a federal lawsuit against the state’s immigration policy.  Session’s announcement of a federal suit was met with a sharp rebuke from California officials, setting up a contentious legal fight pitting Trump’s immigration initiative against local and state law.

Attorney General Sessions Sues Sanctuary Cities

Earlier this month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivered a speech in Sacramento, California in which he announced a federal lawsuit against the state of California for sanctuary policies which prevent state and local employees from aiding federal immigration law enforcement.  Since his inauguration last year, President Trump has zeroed in on sanctuary city policies for frustrating his efforts to crack down on undocumented immigrants.  After more than a year of threats and failed litigation attempting to cut federal funding to cities that refuse compliance with the administration’s immigration agenda, AG Sessions has turned to a federal lawsuit targeting three specific sanctuary policies: the sanctuary law, workplace raid restrictions, and detention review laws.

The so-called “sanctuary law” has been of particular interest to the Trump administration because it explicitly forbids local law enforcement officials in California to 1) tell the federal government when an immigrant is released from jail or prison; and 2) deliver immigrants who are arrested into federal custody from local jails without a warrant from the judge, except in situations where the immigrant allegedly committed a serious crime.  California’s workplace raid law is targeted by Sessions because it prohibits employers from cooperating with federal ICE agents who attempt to raid a place of business to find undocumented immigrants.  The law denies ICE agents access to “nonpublic areas” of a workplace or to employee files without first obtaining a judicial warrant.  Finally, the detention review provision grants authority to California’s AG to review any federal facility where immigrants are held to ensure there are no violations of rights.

According to Sessions, these three provisions prevent the federal government from enforcing its immigration laws, and therefore are in violation of the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution.  California officials have responded to the lawsuit with a defense of the state’s sanctuary laws and a promise to fight the Trump administration in federal court.

California’s Response to Sessions’ Attack on Sanctuary Cities

Sessions offered no allusions to his, or the President’s, frustrations with California’s immigration policies.  During his fiery speech to a Sacramento law enforcement group which also opposes the state’s position, he accused supporters of sanctuary city laws of “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 even pointedly asked Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, a vocal opponent of the Trump administration, “how dare [she] needlessly endanger the lives of law enforcement to promote an open borders agenda.”

Schaaf, Governor Jerry Brown, and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra accused Sessions of engaging in a political stunt, and promoting lies regarding California’s sanctuary city laws.  According to a statement by Brown, Sessions deliberately mislead supporters by falsely claiming the state promotes an open border policy or protects criminals.  Brown called upon Sessions to apologize for his attack on the state’s laws, and took to Twitter to accuse the AG of using the lawsuit as a political stunt to further divide the country.  California’s officials maintain that the laws do not conflict with US immigration policy because they don’t prevent ICE agents from doing their job, but instead merely prohibits state and local officials from helping under certain circumstances.

Will Sessions’ Lawsuit Succeed?

As with anything in politics, there is no doubt that the lawsuit filed by Jeff Sessions on behalf of the Trump administration has an element of partisan posturing — particularly when dealing with immigration, an issue central to Trump’s presidency.  The AG’s public bickering with California officials over sanctuary city policies ensures that the issue will remain a fixture in the voting public’s mind; however, the legal claims advanced by the federal government are not spurious.  Ironically citing the 2012 Supreme Court case Arizona v US, a ruling which was reviled by conservatives for ruling that federal immigration laws can override state policies even without direct conflict, Sessions points out that there is recent precedent for federal authority to overrun state immigration policy.

Although Sessions is correct to utilize Arizona v US, there is a key distinction which has protected California’s sanctuary city law throughout the Trump administration: California’s laws do not regulate immigration like Arizona’s did, but instead simply refuse to aid the federal enforcement of immigration policies.  Federal officials are still free to enforce immigration law, but must use its own resources and legal processes to do so.  California federal courts are famously liberal, and have been a key foil of Trump’s efforts to unilaterally enact strict immigration regulations, so a ruling in favor of the federal government at the lower level appears unlikely.  However, given the Trump administration’s dogged persistence of the issue, it would not be surprising to see the case have its own day in front of the less predictable Supreme Court.

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