Federal judge denies Trump administration effort to block California’s ‘sanctuary’ law

Anoosh Jorjorian holds up a sign as protesters rally outside a hotel where Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions speaks in Sacramento on March 7.
Anoosh Jorjorian holds up a sign as protesters rally outside a hotel where Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions speaks in Sacramento on March 7.
(Josh Edelson / For The Times)

A federal judge refused Thursday to block California from restricting local law enforcement cooperation with immigration agents, an early legal victory for the state’s “sanctuary” law that drew caustic but predictable reactions from both sides.

U.S. District Judge John A. Mendez, in rejecting the position of the Trump administration that California’s law is an attempt to stymie immigration enforcement, wrote that “refusing to help is not the same as impeding.”

“Standing aside does not equate to standing in the way,” Mendez wrote.


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The judge also upheld the legality of a second California law, allowing the state’s attorney general to visit federal immigration detention centers. He rejected part of a third state law — one which imposes fines on private business employers who voluntarily allow immigration agents into the workplace.

Taken together, the three laws represent perhaps the clearest attempt by Democrats in California to push back against the Republican president’s zeal in curtailing illegal immigration. Leaders of the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown have insisted the efforts by President Trump and federal agents have had a chilling effect in communities across the state, an agenda they maintain California isn’t required to help carry out.

Brown said the federal judge’s ruling served as a reminder of the inaction in Washington on a comprehensive overhaul of federal immigration law.

“Only Congress can chart the path forward by rising above mindless, partisan divisions and working together to solve this problem, not exacerbate it,” the governor said in a statement.

Mendez heard lengthy arguments from federal and state attorneys June 20 in a Sacramento courtroom. The judge said at the time that given the high-profile nature of the case, he expected his ruling would ultimately be appealed.

Federal officials didn’t make their next steps clear Thursday, though they praised the limited court victory covering the workplace inspection law.

“While we are disappointed that California’s other laws designed to protect criminal aliens were not yet halted, the Justice Department will continue to seek out and fight unjust policies that threaten public safety,” department spokesman Devin O’Malley said in a written statement.

The marquee law of the three statutes that were challenged, Senate Bill 54, has eliminated much of the discretionary power that local law enforcement previously had to privately share information with federal immigration agents about people who have been arrested and put in county jails. Attorneys for the U.S. Department of Justice argued last month that the state had no right to interfere with the enforcement of immigration law.

But Mendez’s ruling said that because Congress had not explicitly required state or local cooperation, the Trump administration could not block what was otherwise the cancellation of a voluntary effort.

“SB 54 does not add or subtract any rights or restrictions upon immigrants,” the judge wrote. “Immigrants subject to removal remain subject to removal. SB 54, instead, directs the activities of state law enforcement, which Congress has not purported to regulate.”

Mendez also found that the California law doesn’t limit the kind of information-sharing that’s required under federal law — agreeing with state attorneys that it’s only “information strictly pertaining to immigration status” of a person and not additional information such as a release date from a local jail or a home address.

“The state tried to pass legislation that came as close as it could to the federal law without interfering with it,” said Rory Little, a law professor at UC Hastings.

The bill’s author, state Sen. Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles), said the statute was carefully crafted with the help of Eric H. Holder Jr., who served as attorney general under President Obama.

“We made it very clear that we’re not interfering in the functions of immigration authorities to execute their job,” he said.

California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra said the ruling confirmed that the state’s immigration-minded efforts will “work in concert — not conflict — with federal law.”

Nor did the judge find any legal justification for blocking Assembly Bill 103, a law Brown signed in 2017 that ensures nine federally operated detention centers in California should be open to inspection by state officials. Trump administration attorneys argued in court that the law was a thinly disguised effort to thwart the government’s ability to hold those suspected of being in the U.S. illegally.

Mendez, who was appointed by President George W. Bush in 2007, saw no such impediment. Instead, he ruled that the detention centers are supposed to comply with long-standing state and local laws, and that AB 103 simply ensures this is happening.

“For all its bark, the law has no real bite,” he wrote.

One law, however, was seen as going too far. Mendez ruled that Assembly Bill 450, which forbids business owners from voluntarily allowing federal agents to inspect their work sites, should not have also imposed fines of $2,000 or more on employers. He wrote that federal agents could be visiting a work site for more than one reason and, even then, federal immigration law doesn’t allow “additional penalties on employers” beyond those imposed by Congress.

“These fines inflict a burden on those employers who acquiesce in a federal investigation but not on those who do not,” Mendez wrote.

Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco), who authored the workplace immigration law, said he was glad the judge left standing a provision that requires employees be notified when federal agents review their paperwork. And he said nothing in the ruling prevents employers from voluntarily demanding a warrant before allowing agents access to workplace locations that aren’t otherwise accessible to the public.

“It is up to all of us, in our individual ways, to resist the war on immigrants in the United States,” Chiu said in a statement Thursday.

De León, the author of the centerpiece statute that governs law enforcement cooperation in cities and counties across the state, said the judge’s ruling suggests that the lawsuit — announced by Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions in a scathing speech delivered in Sacramento in March — wasn’t sound public policy.

“Sessions is more obsessed with immigrants and people of color than the rule of law,” De León said.

Little, who studies constitutional law, said Thursday’s court action does not appear to offer the Trump administration room for an appeal. “I think the ruling is pretty strong and on solid legal ground,” he said. “But there might be political reasons to appeal it.”

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4:35 p.m.: This article was updated with a comment from Becerra.

1:25 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with additional details and reaction.

This article was originally published at 11:40 a.m.