Jeff Sessions' lawsuit is an invitation for California to break the law

Jeff Sessions' lawsuit is an invitation for California to break the law
U.S. Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions speaks during the 26th Annual Law Enforcement Legislative Day hosted by the California Peace Officers' Assn. in Sacramento on March 7. (Randy Pench / TNS)

Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions has a message for California: Be like us, break the law.

Following repeated threats to withhold federal funding from "sanctuary" locales, (which have met defeat after defeat in the courts), Sessions is "going to war against the state of California," in the words of Gov. Jerry Brown. There have been retaliatory immigration raids across the state, and now the U.S. is suing California over three state laws our Legislature passed to ensure that we are not complicit in the un-American approach to immigration enforcement that the Trump administration is waging every day.


Sessions claims that the lawsuit seeks to uphold the rule of law. But the reverse is true. The administration's policies are grounded in a fundamental disregard for the basic tenets of our constitutional system.

Take for example a workplace raid that occurred last September in Los Angeles. Caught on surveillance cameras, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents disguised as police officers stormed a family-owned mechanic's shop in South L.A. armed with assault rifles. Although they had no court-issued warrants, ICE arrested three workers in the shop, based on nothing more than the color of their skin — a clear violation of law. The government has already dropped its case against one of the workers.

Workplace raids are not about public safety. Their sole aim is to penalize workers who lack employment authorization and the employers who hire them.

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Or take the recent case of a Los Angeles resident arrested by federal immigration agents as he proceeded to board a Greyhound bus in Indio. In plain violation of the 4th Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure. Customs and Border Protection agents blocked him from boarding and detained him, claiming that his untied shoes looked suspicious, like those of someone who had recently crossed the border.

The new California laws that Sessions so disdains simply make it clear that these kinds of stormtrooper-like tactics are not permissible here. They provide that:

  • Employers and businesses must require immigration authorities to have a warrant before allowing them to search nonpublic areas of their businesses — a response to increased immigration raids on workplaces.
  • Police may not hand over someone in their custody to ICE or share information about his or her release date unless presented with a warrant or unless the person has been convicted of serious crimes.
  • California may conduct routine inspections of immigration detention centers operated under contracts with state municipalities.

Sessions says that these laws obstruct immigration agents' ability to apprehend "violent criminals." Except workplace raids are not about public safety. Their sole aim is to penalize workers who lack employment authorization and the employers who hire them.

He says that our sanctuary policies prevent federal agents from ridding dangerous people from our communities, except ICE data show that even before there were restrictions on police-ICE cooperation, ICE sought to arrest only 30% of all the people they asked police to hold for them.

He says that inspecting immigration detention centers under contract with California municipalities will interfere with federal prerogatives, except that oversight of the ICE detention system is woefully inadequate, permitting substandard medical care and other violations that have contributed to preventable detainee deaths.

In the end, the Sessions lawsuit is tantamount to an admission that the federal government cannot engage in mass roundups of immigrants in our communities without trampling on bedrock 4th Amendment requirements and without conscripting our local institutions into that effort.

California adopted limitations on police-ICE cooperation so as not to aid inhumane dragnet operations that destabilize communities, undermine trust in the police and enhance an agenda motivated by racial hatred, not sensible policy. And it adopted these limitations because time and again, courts have said that what ICE is asking of local law enforcement violates the 4th Amendment.

The attorney general of the United States wants things easy; he wants no legal checks on his police powers. But, as he should know, that's not how our system works. The constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures and the guarantee of due process are intended to limit the government's ability to harm people by unjustly arresting and detaining them.

Jeff Sessions' real problem is not with California. It's with the Constitution.

Jennie Pasquarella is director of immigrants' rights at the ACLU of California.

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