The morning after the Trump administration sued California over its sanctuary policies, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday appeared in downtown Sacramento to say states cannot defy the federal government when it comes to immigration.
Nearby at the state Capitol, Gov. Jerry Brown promised he would.
Speaking to the California Peace Officers Association, Sessions said sanctuary laws endanger law enforcement officers and the public, and California is overstepping its powers by interfering with federal authorities.
“California, we have a problem. A series of actions and events has occurred that directly and adversely impact the work of our federal officers,” Sessions said. “Stop protecting lawbreakers and giving all officers more dangerous work to do so that a few politicians can score political points on the backs of officer safety.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
In a press conference less than a hour after Sessions finished speaking, Brown hit back at the idea that the state’s sanctuary laws were an overreach of state power or that they created a danger.
“This is a political stunt,” Brown of Sessions' appearance. “It’s not about the truth. It's not about protecting our state. It's about dividing America.
“These laws do not protect criminals. … We have millions of people here who are here without papers and some of them have been working for 10, 15, 20 years. They’ve been servicing the economy. A lot of them have been doing the dirty work, whether it’s washing dishes or picking the fruit, and now the attorney general is basically initiating a reign of terror.”
Within hours of Sessions' appearance, the Trump campaign sent out an email promoting the lawsuit and the White House confirmed Trump would visit California next week – his first trip to the state since being elected. He is likely to face protests and a chilly reception from most state elected leaders.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra has filed more than 20 lawsuits to stymie federal actions, including one to stop the closure of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that gives legal status to some immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, and another that challenges the building of the border wall on environmental grounds.
The Trump administration for its part has threatened to withhold grant money for law enforcement agencies that don’t cooperate with immigration agents and increased immigration raids in the state. It has also suggested holding sanctuary politicians legally responsible for any fallout from the policies, particularly calling out Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf for issuing a warning about planned ICE raids last month.
"Her actions support those who flout our laws and boldly validate the illegality," Sessions said.
The Sessions suit is an escalation of both rhetoric and action, and targets three California laws – Senate Bill 54, Assembly Bill 450 and Assembly Bill 103 – that the federal government says violate the supremacy clause of the Constitution and interfere with the enforcement of federal immigration laws.
It names both Brown and Becerra personally as defendants.
"A refusal to apprehend and deport those, especially the criminal element, effectively rejects all immigration law and creates an open borders system," Sessions declared Wednesday. "Open borders is a radical, irrational idea that cannot be accepted.
"There is no nullification. There is no secession," Sessions said. "Federal law is 'the supreme law of the land.' I would invite any doubters to Gettysburg, and to the graves of John C. Calhoun and Abraham Lincoln."
Sessions said laws that limit information sharing essentially force ICE officers into more dangerous operations where they have to confront those they’re seeking in the community where they could have greater access to weapons.
"That’s not just unconstitutional, it’s a plain violation of federal statute and common sense," Sessions said.
Along with Brown, many other state officials struck a defiant tone Wednesday. California Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, D- Los Angeles, joined about 200 protesters, including some Sacramento City Council members, in front of the Kimpton Sawyer Hotel in Sacramento where Sessions spoke.
"If U.S. Attorney General Sessions is suing California because we refuse to help (the) Trump administration tear apart hard-working families, I say 'Jeff Sessions, bring it on because we're ready in California,'” said de León.
U.S. Senator Kamala Harris tweeted out, “The Department of Justice should be spending its resources on real public safety issues, not political stunts.”
Some Californians, however, supported Sessions.
“I am in complete support of this lawsuit because we cannot continue with this lawlessness that these liberals in California are doing. They are not protecting us American citizens, they are protecting illegal aliens and criminals," said Southern California resident Agnes Gibboney, a member of the group Fight Sanctuary State.
Gibboney is a legal immigrant from Brazil whose son, Ronald DaSilva, was shot and killed more than a decade ago when he was 29 in a drive-by shooting that Gibboney said was committed by a previously deported undocumented man who had returned across the border.
“It doesn’t matter how many years it's been, the pain is just as raw. California is not defending me, protecting me. … They are protecting criminal illegal aliens,” Gibboney said. “My son is dead because of that.”
California became a sanctuary state at the start of the year with implementation of Senate Bill 54, also called the California Values Act, which restricted how and when state law enforcement can interact with federal immigration authorities. The statute quickly became a flashpoint between the Trump administration and state lawmakers. Assembly Bill 450 created rules for how employers must handle federal immigration audit requests, commonly called I-9 audits.
Assembly Bill 103 restricts the ability of jurisdictions to contract with ICE to house immigrant detainees in local jails. It also gives the state attorney general the power to inspect ICE detention facilities.
The Department of Justice complaint spells out how provisions of each law have interfered with federal law enforcement efforts. DOJ attorneys argue AB 450 prohibits private employers from voluntarily cooperating with federal immigration officials, including those conducting work site enforcement operations.
SB 54, they say, forces the release of immigrants who have already shown a willingness to engage in criminal activity. AB 103 tries to give California the power to regulate the federal government, they say, by allowing access to federal law enforcement records housed in detention facilities.
The lawsuit, filed in the Sacramento-based U.S. Eastern District of California, asks the court to issue preliminary injunctions to prohibit the enforcement of some of the state laws. Becerra said Tuesday night that he hadn't had time to review the details but his office was prepared to fight the lawsuit.
"In California, our state laws work in concert with federal laws," Becerra said. "No matter what happens in Washington, California will stay the course. We are following the Constitution and the federal law."
Becerra on Tuesday framed the issue around states' rights and the 10th Amendment of the Constitution, an argument often used by the conservative right to combat federal policies viewed as intrusive.
Sacramento Bee reporter Alexei Koseff contributed to this report.