Federal lawyers representing the Trump administration were in Sacramento on Wednesday, but what they were doing is not fully understood by enough people.
Oh, the federal lawyers understood their purpose. They argued their case all day before U.S. District Judge John A. Mendez, an appointee of President George W. Bush, on the 14th floor of the Robert T. Matsui United States Courthouse on the corner of 5th and I streets. But many in the capital area and greater California – including the Republican candidate for governor – either misunderstand or misstate what is being debated.
The confusion stems from one deceptive, manipulative word: "Sanctuary." Too many people know only that Trump lawyers were in town to fight California's status as a "sanctuary state." The word "sanctuary" evokes images of a progressive blue state using its laws to harbor "criminal aliens" who are in the United States illegally. Some seem to believe that California has crafted a legal scheme to keep federal immigration officials from arresting dangerous gang members, drug dealers and other criminals who are in the United States without documentation.
This is a lie that has been perpetuated over and over again by President Donald Trump, by leading figures in the Trump administration, on conservative media platforms and by politicians seeking Trump's help, such as John Cox, the Republican nominee for governor. Even otherwise well-meaning pro-immigrant advocates have adopted the word "sanctuary" like a badge of honor. They want their state to be kind to undocumented immigrants and therefore they are OK with the idea that California provides sanctuary to immigrants, legal or otherwise.
It's a genuine sentiment, just as some Californians genuinely want immigrants to have their legal documents in order if they are on U.S. soil. The reality is that what the federal government is battling with the state of California is far more complicated. The argument that California lawyers are making can be paraphrased like this:
"Hey feds, you're in charge of enforcing federal immigration laws. But in California, you're going to have to enforce those laws without local and state officials directly assisting you and without state resources supporting you. Do your job, but without us."
The feds argue the methods the state has enacted to divorce it from directly partnering with the feds in immigration enforcement are unconstitutional. It's funny, but at least in the morning session of Wednesday's court hearing in Sacramento, the word "sanctuary" was barely uttered.
Instead, the lawyers clashed, for example, over the state law, created by Assembly Bill 103, which disallows local entities from contracting with ICE – the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement – to jail immigrant detainees. It also allows the state attorney general to inspect federal detention facilities, some of which are housed within state detention centers.
The feds argued that the time and resources needed to accommodate requests for a state inspections were burdensome. They also argued that the state attorney general had no authority to inspect their facilities.
The lawyers also argued over a state law that requires federal officials to obtain a warrant before inspecting some private workplaces. This was created by Assembly Bill 450.
Lawyers for the Trump administration argued that this restricted their ability to enforce federal laws, and restricted employers who wanted to cooperate with the feds. In addition, federal lawyers characterized the requirement for 72-hour notice before feds could inspect workplaces as an "obstruction." Chad Readler, acting assistant U.S. Attorney General, even suggested that the 72-hour time frame might allow for a "warning" to employees not to show up at work when the feds came calling.
"That’s a very cynical view," said Judge Mendez from the bench. "I don’t want to take it."
And finally, the state and the feds are debating the state law, created by Senate Bill 54, that prohibits state and local law enforcement from using their resources to investigate, detain, arrest or interrogate people based on their immigration status. State Sen. Kevin de León was the author of Senate Bill 54 and attended the hearing.
"The thesis behind Senate Bill 54 is that the federal government cannot commandeer local law enforcement officers, local resources and our local tax dollars for (enforcing) federal immigration laws," de León said.,
It's hard to foresee how Mendez will rule. And his ruling likely will be appealed to a higher court – and may eventually land in the U.S. Supreme Court.
But at least on Wednesday, Mendez seemed skeptical of the case being made by federal lawyers.
"Where’s the evidence of it being burdensome in any way?” Mendez asked when federal lawyers argued that they shouldn't be subject to inspections by the state attorney general.
"(State law) is in many ways the the state telling (the federal government) that we're not participating anymore....We're done with you."
Mendez may rule against some state laws relating to federal immigration enforcement while allowing others to stand. But anyone sitting in Mendez's courtroom could tell the term "sanctuary state" is a misnomer. It's a political label, and a pejorative one, like "illegal immigrant."
Readler and other federal lawyers referred to undocumented immigrants by that term. Mendez did not. Whatever Mendez's ruling will be, his use of the phrase "undocumented immigrant" indicated an arbiter who was not interested in the politics of immigration – politics that spawned loud protests and counter-protests outside the Matsui federal building.
If more people were as dispassionate as the judge deciding between the feds and the state of California, the "sanctuary state" label would not exist. All of this would be about how much the state of California should do to help the feds enforce immigration laws, if at all.
That's what this is about. Everything else is just noise.