Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions warned California on Wednesday that “there is no secession” from federal jurisdiction as he appeared before members of the California Peace Officers Assn. in Sacramento to announce a lawsuit against three so-called “sanctuary state” laws. To no one’s surprise, his claims drew immediate rebukes from state officials. Gov. Jerry Brown’s initial response after the suit was filed late Tuesday stands as one of the better jabs in this political fight: “At a time of unprecedented political turmoil, Jeff Sessions has come to California to further divide and polarize America. Jeff, these political stunts may be the norm in Washington, but they don’t work here. SAD!!!” He followed it at a news conference with another shot at Sessions, a former U.S. senator: “A fellow from Alabama talking to us about secession?” Grab the popcorn; this could get interesting.
Oddly, we (sort of) welcome the Trump administration’s legal challenge in hopes that it will clarify not just for state officials, but for the federal government where the lines of responsibility and culpability might lie. We suspect the courts will side with California on most if not all of the legal issues Session’s lawsuit raises, and in the process could underscore the reality that California’s menu of state and local laws limiting involvement with federal immigration enforcement do not offer anyone anything remotely like sanctuary.
Just consider the statistics the federal government provided in its lawsuit. Last year, 14% of Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrests occurred in California. So far this year, the state accounts for 13% of the national total. So the laws at issue don’t seem to have done much to hinder enforcement here.
The federal challenge hinges on the Constitution’s “supremacy clause,” which says federal laws take precedence over state laws. That’s true, but that doesn’t mean the federal government can dragoon state authorities into enforcing federal statutes. Similarly, states should not craft laws on immigration policy — that’s a federal responsibility — and should not undermine the federal government as it enforces its own immigration codes. But the state laws at issue here do not set immigration policy. As the news website Vox points out, the federal lawsuit isn’t really about restoring ICE’s abilities, “but rather about making it easier for the agency to do its job.” California isn’t stopping federal enforcement (a recent series of raids up and down the state are proof of that); it is saying that it won’t help.
That’s more than just a legitimate position — it’s one that local law enforcement officials insist is better for public safety. There’s research to back them up, too. When local communities view police, who are responsible for enforcing criminal laws and protecting public safety, as immigration enforcers in a different uniform, fewer crimes get reported and fewer witnesses come forward. That undermines community safety and the criminal justice system.
Do some specific elements of the state laws at issue cross the line from non-involvement to impediment? That’s a good question for the courts. One of the laws under challenge tells businesses that they can’t voluntarily cooperate with immigration agents, which could be an overstep — what right does a state have to tell a private business when it can and can’t offer information to federal officials? But another law targeted by Sessions helps the state carry out its duty to ensure the safety of public facilities. That measure establishes a state inspection regimen of facilities with which the federal government contracts to house detainees. The vast majority of those, including the Adelanto Detention Facility in San Bernardino County, are owned and operated by private corporations, and the state has a responsibility to make certain such facilities meet state health and safety codes even if the sole customer is the federal government.
What this lawsuit really is about is politics. California political leaders have persistently challenged a wide range of Trump administration policies. Brown is the main figure in a global coalition of sub-national governments seeking to meet global-warming emissions under the Paris Agreement that Trump is walking away from. State Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra has sued the administration over the suspension of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the travel ban, a Trump rule allowing more employers to stop offering insurance coverage for birth control, and on and on.
For the administration, liberal and ethnically diverse California is the America its political supporters hate, and this lawsuit is another front in our ongoing culture wars. So as state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León tweeted, “Bring it on.” Clarifying these lines of responsibility just might do everyone some good.