Column: In sanctuary ruling, a federal judge schools Atty. Gen. Sessions on the law

Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions left no doubt back in March about how far his nose was put out of joint by California’s pushback on the government’s immigration policies.

California, we have a problem,” he said at a conference of the California Peace Officers’ Assn. in Sacramento on March 7. He placed the state in the camp of “lawless open-borders radicals” and took particular aim at three new state laws he said were aimed at “actively obstructing federal law enforcement.” Just the day before, he said, he had filed a lawsuit to overturn those laws.

As is often the case with Sessions, his high dudgeon would be more impressive if he had the law to back it up. That’s essentially what U.S. District Judge John A. Mendez of Sacramento told him Thursday, when he denied most of the government’s motion to block the laws.


Standing aside does not equate to standing in the way.

— U.S. District Judge John A. Mendez

Mendez found that for the most part, the laws fell squarely within the state’s authority to manage its own law enforcement resources and keep them from being “commandeered” by the federal government for its own purposes. The exceptions were two provisions of one of the measures, which forbid employers from voluntarily admitting immigration officers into their premises and prevented them from reverifying the immigration status of an employee.

But he allowed the rest of the package to stand. That includes a measure directing the state attorney general to inspect detention facilities holding noncitizens within the state, including a review of the “conditions of confinement” and the due process afforded the detainees; and another measure restricting state and local law enforcement cooperation with immigration agents, including limits on the information California authorities can provide about detainees.

Mendez also upheld one provision of the law directed toward employers, requiring them to give their workers notice of any impending immigration raid within 72 hours of receiving notice themselves.

Immigration policy stands at the head of the list of all the areas where California is at odds with Trump administration policy. As my colleague John Myers reported, the three laws at issue in Mendez’s court were the head of the spear in the state’s efforts to fend off Trump’s “zeal in curtailing illegal immigration.”

Trump and Sessions are especially incensed by the “sanctuary” movement, in which localities step aside from voluntary cooperation with immigration officers. In his March speech, Sessions characterized these actions as “actively obstructing federal law enforcement.”

Mendez made clear, however, that nothing in the state’s sanctuary laws “actively obstructs” federal officials: “Standing aside does not equate to standing in the way.”

The rule on inspection of detention facilities, for example, requires little of those facilities beyond allowing state inspectors access to their grounds and records, “which is of little or no consequence.” The law doesn’t give the state licensing jurisdiction, or provide for penalties for substandard conditions. “For all its bark,” the judge found, “the law has no real bite.”

The judge found that the Legislature’s concern about “egregious conditions” in facilities housing immigration detainees might well be warranted: He cited a federal inspection report last year that found that because of spoiled food and filthy conditions, the Theo Lacy Facility, a maximum-security jail operated by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department with capacity for 3,442 inmates, didn’t meet the standards of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Mendez understood that, far from posing a danger to Californians, as Sessions would have it, allowing local law enforcement to become entangled in immigration enforcement could have a negative impact on public safety.

Given how fears of the police or civil authorities could discourage residents from reporting crimes, seeking health services or sending their kids to school, Mendez found it “entirely reasonable for the state to determine that assisting immigration enforcement in any way, even in purportedly passive ways like releasing information … is a detrimental use of state law enforcement resources.”

Mendez’s ruling is certain to be appealed. But he concluded with a warning about the “polarizing politics dominating the current immigration debate” and the inability of the courts to manage it. Only Congress and the president can work in a “cooperative and bi-partisan fashion” to draft workable immigration policy. “Our Nation deserves it,” he wrote. “Our Constitution demands it.”

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