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California Senate leader preparing for legal fight over 'sanctuary state' legislation

California Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De León (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)
California Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De León (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Gov. Jerry Brown hasn't yet signed legislation making California a so-called sanctuary state, but state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León is preparing to defend it in court.

In between several immigration events in Washington on Wednesday, De León (D-Los Angeles) said he met with former U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. — who has served as outside counsel to the Legislature for much of the year — "to continue to further discuss inoculating California from [U.S. Atty. Gen.] Jeff Sessions' Department of Justice."

Passed early Saturday by the Legislature, the sanctuary state bill would limit state and local law enforcement communication with federal immigration authorities and prevent officers from questioning and holding people on immigration violations.

Sessions has threatened to withhold some federal grant funds from cities and counties that refuse to assist federal immigration agents.

Holder and other former Justice Department lawyers believe the bill is defendable, and if the Trump administration tries to compel California cities to act by withholding funds, it will find itself in court, De León said. Defenders of so-called sanctuary cities often rely on a 1996 Supreme Court ruling that cited the 10th Amendment and found the federal government can't compel local governments to cooperate with enforcing federal laws.

“It is immoral, and quite frankly un-American, that America’s top law enforcement official would withhold dollars that our local police officers need — precious dollars we need desperately to counter terrorism, to deal with the issue of human trafficking as well as international drug cartels,” De León said.

On Tuesday, Sessions urged Brown not to sign the bill, calling it “unconscionable” and a threat to public safety. Brown responded to Sessions' comment on CNN by calling the legislation well-balanced.

"It protects public safety, but it also protects hardworking people who contribute a lot to California," Brown said. He has until Oct. 15 to sign the bill.

De León also shot back against Sessions' statement that the federal money isn't an "entitlement," saying Californians pay more in federal taxes than they receive in federal funding.

"That’s not a gift or a grant from the Department of Justice to California. Those are our dollars; they belong to the people of California,” he said.

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