In another shot in the ongoing battle over so-called sanctuary city policies, Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions on Tuesday attacked California’s new bill that affords some protections to undocumented immigrants across the state, calling it “unconscionable” and a threat to public safety.
Sessions, speaking in Portland, Ore., to federal immigration and law enforcement officers, appealed to Gov. Jerry Brown to reject the bill, passed by the Legislature on Saturday to limit how much information California law enforcement officials can share with federal immigration agents.
“The bill risks the safety of good law enforcement officers and the safety of the neighborhoods that need their protection the most,” Sessions said.
But Brown fired back, strongly defending the measure as a “well-balanced bill” and a reaction to “this kind of xenophobia we see coming out of Washington.”
“It protects public safety but it also protects hardworking people who contribute a lot to California,” Brown said in an interview on CNN. Brown had pushed for exceptions in the bill to allow jails and prisons to cooperate with immigration agents.
“We’re not soldiers of Donald Trump or the federal immigration service,” he said, adding, “The immigration people can come into our jails, they can interview people, they can pick up people they think are appropriate.”
Sessions, a longtime fierce advocate for reduced immigration, both legal and illegal, has led the Trump administration’s effort to increase deportations and has pushed hard to compel cities and counties to cooperate.
As he has done repeatedly, Sessions in harsh language drew a connection between illegal immigration and increases in violent crime, though studies have shown that immigrants generally commit fewer crimes than native residents.
“This state of lawlessness allows gangs to smuggle guns, drugs and even humans across borders and around cities and communities,” he said. “That makes a sanctuary city a trafficker, smuggler or gang member’s best friend.”
Cities and counties across the country have been fighting the administration’s crackdown, winning federal court rulings that block most of those “sanctuary” policies from taking effect. California’s bill is the most sweeping of its kind in the country, preventing officers from holding people on immigration violations.
In Portland, protestors gathered outside the venue where Sessions spoke, attacking him for his enforcement positions and opposition to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the Obama-era policy of providing temporary legal status to certain people brought to the country illegally as children. Trump recently ordered a phase-out of the program, calling on Congress to write alternative policies into law.
Conflicts over the role of local police and jails in helping to arrest undocumented immigrants did not begin with the Trump administration. After protests and lawsuits, President Obama in 2014 ended a program called Secure Communities that asked local authorities to hold people for federal immigration agents, even when they were arrested for minor violations.
But the conflicts have quickly escalated since Trump took office, after a campaign largely defined by his harsh anti-immigration message. The issue of sanctuary cities has become a primary battleground for the broader immigration debate, playing out in courtrooms, city halls and statehouses.
In his first week in office, Trump issued an executive order that tried to cut off federal funds to cities and counties that refuse to provide assistance to immigration agents. A federal judge in San Francisco blocked the order in April, prompting Trump to tweet, “See you in the Supreme Court!” On Monday, the Justice Department filed a motion saying it would appeal.
Sessions has tried to use Justice Department policy to pressure cities into compliance. In July, the department announced that to qualify for some law enforcement grants, cities and counties would have to provide notice to federal authorities about illegal immigrants in jails.
Chicago and other cities have sued over that rule, and last week a federal judge in Illinois blocked Sessions from implementing that condition anywhere.
Sessions defended his stance on Tuesday. “These grants are not an entitlement,” he said. “We strive to help state and local law enforcement.”
As the fights have escalated, dozens of cities have declared themselves safe zones from immigration enforcement. In Texas, some cities are suing to stop a state law that aims to compel police to check on immigration status and send information to federal agents.
In Multnomah County, which contains Portland, the county jail once honored detainer requests. But that changed after an Oregon court said in 2014 that holding someone after their scheduled release violated the Constitution.
The jail continued to provide regular reports to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement about who was in custody — until Trump took office. A week after his inauguration, county officials announced they would resist his sanctuary city order.
Sessions has repeatedly highlighted a Portland case as an example of the dangers of sanctuary policies.
Sergio Martinez, who had a criminal record in three states, had been deported from the U.S. at least a dozen times, most recently last November. On Dec. 7, learning he was held in Multnomah County Jail, ICE placed a detainer request for Martinez. But the jail released him the next day without notifying the agency.
Police say he attacked two women in late July, including a 65-year-old woman, and he is now back in jail on charges of kidnapping, sodomy and sexual abuse.
“Think about that: Police may be forced to release pedophiles, rapists, murderers, drug dealers and arsonists back into the communities where they had no right to be in the first place,” Sessions said. “They should, according to law and common sense, be processed and deported.”
The county sheriff, Mike Reese, released a statement in July that said the case left him “distressed and heartbroken.” But, he said, the jails had no legal authority to hold Martinez without a criminal warrant. As for notification, the county says ICE agents can check the jail website like other members of the public.
“The reality is, from the Sheriff’s Office perspective, the combination of state law and federal court cases prevent us from the information-sharing piece with ICE,” said department spokesman Lt. Chad Gaidos.