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Federal judge is skeptical of Trump administration arguments against California's 'sanctuary' law

Federal judge is skeptical of Trump administration arguments against California's 'sanctuary' law
More than 100 protesters demonstrated Wednesday outside the federal courthouse in Sacramento, where a federal judge heard arguments over the U.S. Justice Department's request to block three California laws that extend protections to people in the country illegally. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

A federal judge on Wednesday challenged attorneys for the Trump administration and California over their contrasting views of laws designed to limit the state’s involvement in enforcing federal immigration policy.

In the end, U.S. District Judge John A. Mendez seemed to poke a number of sizable holes in the federal government’s argument that California’s “sanctuary” law — which limits local law enforcement cooperation with immigration agents — is unconstitutional.

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He also raised hard-to-answer questions for state attorneys about a different law that forbids most employers from allowing immigration agents without court orders to visit workplaces. At one point, he suggested California lawmakers had left business owners with only bad choices.

The laws, part of a package passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last year, are the centerpiece of political and legal resistance to President Trump led by California Democrats.

The federal government’s attorneys said the statutes are an effort to hamper federal immigration law enforcement. “In our mind, the point of the laws was to obstruct,” said Chad Readler, the acting assistant U.S. attorney general for the civil division, who argued on behalf of the Trump administration in court.

Federal attorneys want an injunction to block the state laws. Attorneys representing California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra and Brown want the judge to dismiss the Trump administration’s lawsuit, which was filed in early March. The judge didn’t give an indication of when he might rule, but at several points he suggested parts of the laws could be upheld and other parts overturned.

The hearing in Sacramento was held just a few blocks from where U.S. Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions delivered a fiery late winter speech denouncing state and local leaders for what he said was their embrace of a policy promoted by “radical extremists.” That same day, Brown returned fire, likening the lawsuit and the rhetoric to “going to war against the state of California.”

A steady stream of anti-Trump protesters crowded the federal courthouse’s entrance Wednesday. While they voiced support for the state laws, they also held signs protesting the just-rescinded family separation policy at the U.S.-Mexico border.

No law symbolizes the effort by California leaders to push back on the president’s immigration efforts more than the “sanctuary” law — Senate Bill 54, also known as the California Values Act. The law has eliminated much of the discretionary power that local law enforcement previously had to quietly share information with federal immigration agents about people who have been arrested and put in county jails. In some counties, the relationship with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents had been so close that the agents had their own workspace inside local lockups.

Under SB 54, local law enforcement officers are allowed to give federal agents public information only about an inmate’s release from jail. The law makes an exemption when a person suspected of being in the U.S. illegally has been convicted of any of 800 crimes outlined in a 2013 state law.

Over the course of more than two hours Wednesday, Mendez repeatedly insisted that federal attorneys point out where Congress has explicitly said that a state can’t simply “opt out” of optional assistance to immigration agents.

“You come in and you want me to strike down a state law that Congress has never said to a state, ‘You can’t do this’?” the judge said.

The Trump administration lawyers repeatedly said there are constitutional problems with any “blanket” plan to limit local-federal law enforcement partnerships. But the attorneys representing California insisted this was not that kind of plan.

To do more than the new law allows, said state Deputy Atty. Gen. Lee Sherman, would be tantamount to the federal government dictating the use of local and state resources. “The United States cannot commandeer the use of the state’s law enforcement services,” he said.

Federal officials have complained the new law is already causing problems.

Thomas Homan, the ICE director who is scheduled to retire this month, said in a lengthy letter to Mendez in March that there were more than 119 San Diego-area immigrants that ICE could not get information about during the first two months of 2018. He recounted one case where ICE transferred a person to San Diego police wanted for possession of a firearm silencer, but then local officials “simply allowed him to bond out of custody without notifying ICE of the release.”

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Orange County and its top law enforcement officer, Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, filed a court brief last week that warned of dire consequences if SB 54 is left in place.

In a written statement to the court, Hutchens said she and other sheriffs across California worry that dangerous immigrants will be released from local jails and commit serious crimes. “I think it is a question of when, not if, this will happen,” she wrote.

Her attorneys also presented data they argued show the effects of the new limits on local-federal communications. The brief said that in the first four months of this year, 341 of 601 Orange County jail inmates with immigration “detainers” were released without prison officials notifying federal agents. Some of those people, the court filing contended, “were charged with violent or serious crimes that present a public safety concern.”

The judge, who engaged in lengthy question-and-answer sessions for much of the day, seemed sharply critical of some provisions in Assembly Bill 450, which limits immigration-related inspections at workplaces across California. The law requires immigration agents to obtain a warrant before visiting most workplaces. Before its passage, according to U.S. Justice Department attorneys, an employer could consent to the visit without a court getting involved.

“The effect of the state law is to make that job more difficult,” Readler said.

An early flashpoint in the court proceeding came when Readler, whom Trump appointed to a federal circuit court judgeship two weeks ago, insisted that California lawmakers had an ulterior motive when they included a provision in the law that requires immigration agents give 72-hour notice to employers before a visit.

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He called that information a “warning” to those in the U.S. illegally that perhaps they shouldn’t show up to work that day.

Mendez quickly jumped in from the bench: “That’s a very cynical view,” he told the federal attorney. “I don’t want to take it.”

State lawyers insisted that AB 450 has not altered the fundamentals of national immigration law. “The federal government can still complete its workplace investigations” by obtaining a warrant, said state Deputy Atty. Gen. Christine Chuang.

But the judge sharply questioned Chuang about how an employer should react in a variety of instances when federal agents show up at a business.

AB 450 allows an employer to be fined up to $2,000 for voluntarily allowing immigration agents into private areas of a job site. On the other hand, said Mendez, an employer who has knowingly hired people without legal residency can face federal penalties.

“The statute really puts the employer between a rock and a hard place,” the judge said to Chuang.

Much of the early moments in court focused on another state law, Assembly Bill 103, which gives state officials the power to inspect federal detention centers. Mendez sounded skeptical of the federal government’s insistence that state officials had no right to inspect the detention centers. There are nine in the state and five have already been visited by state officials.

“Where’s the evidence of it being burdensome in any way?” Mendez asked.

In the months since Sessions announced the lawsuit to invalidate the California laws, the battle over the state’s pro-immigrant position has become a cause célèbre for both liberal and conservative groups. More than two dozen groups or individuals filed friend of the court briefs. Sixteen states led by Republicans sharply criticized Brown and California lawmakers, as did the GOP governors of Mississippi and Maine.

9 p.m.: This article was updated with numerous details from the afternoon session of court, including the courtroom debate over Senate Bill 54.

This article was originally published at 2:30 p.m.

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