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The Trump administration sues California over sanctuary protections

The “sanctuary state” suit marks the beginning of a long legal and political battle


Sessions versus CaliforniaThe Trump administration sues California over sanctuary protections

The “sanctuary state” suit marks the beginning of a long legal and political battle

DONALD TRUMP, impatient with mounting resistance to his hard-line stance on immigration, is deploying a weapon more frequently wielded by his opponents: litigation. On March 6th, the Department of Justice (DoJ) filed a lawsuit in a federal district court in Sacramento outlining three ways California has “preempted” federal immigration law and “impermissibly discriminate[d] against the United States”. Immigration is a federal matter, the suit argues, not a policy that varies from state to state. The so-called “sanctuary” protections California affords to its 2.4m unauthorised immigrants thus violate the constitutional principle that federal legislation is “the supreme law of the land”. 

The targets of Mr Trump’s lawsuit are laws adopted in 2017 that make California a less hospitable place for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents to find, hold and deport illegal immigrants. The California Values Act prevents local authorities from telling ICE agents when jailed immigrants are due to be released and from turning them over directly to federal custody. Another law bars employers from cooperating with immigration officials seeking to conduct raids on their places of business. A third gives California the power to inspect federal detention facilities to ensure that conditions meet health and safety standards. 

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Jeff Sessions, Mr Trump’s attorney general, is angry. “California is using every power it has—and some it doesn’t—to frustrate federal law enforcement”, he said on a visit to the state on March 7th.  “I’m going to use every power I have to stop them.” While Mr Sessions acknowledged that “we have a wide variety of political opinions out there on immigration”, he suggested that California’s intransigence was akin to states defying federal law in the antebellum South. “There is no nullification”, he said. “There is no secession. Federal law is the supreme law of the land”.

This position, coming from a Republican administration, is a remarkable retreat from a principle Republicans trumpeted just a few years ago. When in 2010 Arizona adopted SB 1070—a law that cracked down on unauthorised immigrants by requiring them to carry papers and empowering police to arrest them without a warrant—Republicans defended the move as a legitimate exercise of state power. Eight years later, Mr Sessions considers California’s sanctuary laws the expression of a state gone rogue. Lawyers at the DoJ are citing Arizona v United States, a 2002 Supreme Court ruling that chastised Arizona for overstepping its bounds. “Immigration policy shapes the destiny of the nation”, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for a 5-3 majority. “Arizona may have understandable frustrations with the problems caused by illegal immigration”, he concluded, “but the state may not pursue policies that undermine federal law”.

Citing the Arizona decision may seem ironic, and California’s defence of its sanctuary policies may smack of the state-sovereignty argument that liberals deplored when it was used to unsettle rather than reassure immigrants, but the Trump administration has a Supreme Court ruling on its side in this turning of the tables. The decision in Arizona may have rankled conservatives at the time, but it does seem to provide at least prima facie support for their claim today that California is thwarting ICE’s efforts to enforce federal immigration laws.

That said, the laws in question are not quite equivalent. Some provisions of Arizona’s SB 1070 were found to have usurped federal authority over immigration enforcement, but California’s “sanctuary” laws are better conceived as mildly frustrating it—being more tight-lipped about individuals’ whereabouts, making workplaces less amenable to rounding people up, forcing ICE to work harder to find and deport people. Nothing in the California legislation actually prevents federal immigration agents from doing anything, or even permits locals to throw feds off the scent; indeed, ICE has stepped up its presence in the state, conducting workplace raids and sweeping up hundreds of immigrants at a time. So there is, in reality, no “sanctuary” canopy California drapes over its millions of undocumented residents that protects them from removal. 

While the Trump administration’s lawsuit percolates in the district court—with battles at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and, possibly, the Supreme Court months down the road—the war of words between state and federal officials is likely to continue. “Elections have consequences. Our citizens want our government to think about them for a change”, Mr Sessions said. “They have dreams too.” For his part, California’s Democratic governor, Jerry Brown, said the Trump administration is "full of liars" and called the lawsuit a “political stunt” that offers nothing more than “pure red meat for the base”. In a tweet he said that dirty politics “may be the norm in Washington, but they don't work” in California. “Sad!!!"   

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