A long-simmering battle between the Trump administration and California over immigration boiled over Wednesday, with Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions deriding the state's "irrational, unfair and unconstitutional policies" and Gov. Jerry Brown accusing the federal government of launching "a reign of terror."
"This is basically going to war against the state of California," Brown declared.
As the Justice Department formally filed a legal challenge to state immigration laws, Sessions told a gathering of law enforcement officers in Sacramento that California was attempting to keep federal immigration officials from doing their jobs, and he charged Democrats with advancing the political agendas of "radical extremists."
He took particular aim at Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, who had warned immigrant communities about recent federal raids in the Bay Area, and at Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, for praising her actions.
"So here's my message to Mayor Schaaf: How dare you?" Sessions said of the Brown protege. "Contrary to what you may hear from open-borders radicals, we are not asking California, Oakland or anyone else to actively, effectively enforce immigration laws."
The remarks drew protests and sharp rebukes from state leaders, underscoring huge rifts over the role of law enforcement in federal immigration policy.
President Trump has made restricting immigration a central focus of his agenda and has frequently criticized California for resistance to his calls to increase deportations. On Wednesday, the White House confirmed that Trump would make his first visit to California since becoming president next week, to assess prototypes for the border wall he wants built between California and Mexico and to attend a GOP fundraiser.
California Democratic leaders and the state's top law enforcement officer responded with war talk of their own, describing Sessions' actions as unprecedented. In fiery tweets, speeches and at a news conference at the Capitol, the Democrats said the Justice Department lawsuit is based on lies and challenges California's sovereignty.
The governor called Sessions' actions a political stunt, aimed at distracting the public from guilty pleas made by Trump's advisors in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's ongoing investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
"Let's face it, the Trump White House is under siege," Brown said. "Obviously, the attorney general has found it hard just to be a normal attorney general. He's been caught up in the whirlwind of Trumpism … [and is] initiating a reign of terror."
State Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles), author of one of the laws targeted by the legal challenge, accused Sessions of having ideology based on "white supremacy and white nationalism."
De León said he is directing former U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr., under contract to provide legal advice to the state Senate, to help formulate a response to submit in court. On a conference call with reporters, Holder said legal precedent makes clear that the federal government cannot insist that a state use its resources to enforce federal immigration law.
"From my perspective, the Trump administration's lawsuit is really a political and unconstitutional attack on the state of California's well-established rights under our system of government," Holder said.
The three laws administration officials seek to challenge make it a crime for business owners to voluntarily help federal agents find and detain undocumented workers, prohibit local law enforcement from alerting immigration agents when detainees are released from custody and create a state inspection program for federal immigration detention centers.
Administration officials allege the laws, passed by the Legislature last year and signed by Brown, blatantly obstruct federal immigration law and thus violate the Constitution's supremacy clause, which gives federal law precedence over state enactments.
State Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra has pledged to defend the measures in court, saying they work in concert with federal laws. "Our teams work together to go after drug dealers, to combat gang violence, to take down sex-trafficking rings, and we have no intention of changing that," he said Wednesday.
In his speech to more than 100 police chiefs, sheriffs and other law enforcement officers, Sessions argued that the Trump administration did not reject immigration, but said the U.S. should not reward those who unlawfully enter the country with benefits, such as legal status, food stamps and work permits.
He said the federal government sued California to invalidate and immediately freeze what he called unjust laws.
"We are going to fight these irrational, unfair and unconstitutional policies that have been imposed on you and our federal officers," Sessions said as he finished his speech to the California Peace Officers Assn., and some officers stood in ovation. "You can be certain about this: We have your back, and you have our thanks."
As the group welcomed Sessions with applause, a statewide coalition of immigrant rights groups gathered outside to protest his arrival.
The lawsuit and Sessions' visit are the latest volley in an escalating battle between the Trump administration and Democratic leaders in California, where laws have been passed to extend healthcare, driver's licenses and education to some of the more than 2.3 million immigrants living in the state illegally.
The event is usually a time for law enforcement officers to mingle with lawmakers, lobby for legislation and receive guidance from leaders on law enforcement priorities across the state. But Sessions' appearance swept the attention away.
Police officers said the state's immigration laws had not impeded their jobs so far, but the constant battles between state and federal leaders were affecting their relationships with federal partners.
Fairfield Police Chief Randy Fenn said the lawsuit raised concerns about whether law enforcement agencies would be caught in the middle of a larger immigration battle.
"We are waiting to see how this shakes out," Fenn said.
Neil Gallucci, second vice president of the state peace officers group, said Sessions' opinion was important to understand as the federal lawsuit had the potential to change California laws.
"Atty. Gen. Sessions is the top law enforcement officer in the United States of America," Gallucci said. "It would be foolish for us not to listen to where we may be headed and to understand what all the issues are. That is what this forum is for."
Though the state government's foray into immigration issues has drawn criticism outside California in recent months, it has broad support within the state. A January poll by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found 58% of likely voters wanted state and local immigration action. Among all adults, support rose to 65% of those surveyed.
Law enforcement officials have been divided on the issue. The most contested of the statutes — the so-called sanctuary state law — limits state and local law enforcement agencies from using any resources to hold, question or share information about people with federal immigration agents, unless they have violent or serious criminal convictions.
For many officers across the state, that won't change much of their daily work. Some police and sheriff's agencies already have developed similar restrictions on working with immigration agents, either through their own policies or under local "sanctuary city" rules.
The California Police Chiefs Assn. moved its official position from opposed to neutral after final changes to the bill, but the California State Sheriffs' Assn. remained opposed.
Outside Sessions' speech Wednesday, a few hundred people gathered to protest. Right before the speech began, protesters spilled out onto a major street, blocking traffic, and then marched around the building.
Maria Isabel Serrano, 46, from Imperial County, said the attorney general should focus on violent crimes, not immigration.
"This is the only place where we have a sanctuary," Serrano said in Spanish. "This lawsuit is uncalled for."
Times staff writers John Myers and Seema Mehta contributed to this report.
6:35 p.m.: This article has been updated for additional details and for clarity.
2:15 p.m.: This article was updated with new remarks from state Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra.
12:05 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from Gov. Jerry Brown, state leaders and law enforcement officers.