Amid protests outside the courtroom and a nationwide outcry over federal border policies, state lawyers and the Trump administration faced off in a Sacramento court Wednesday in the first legal test of California's "sanctuary state" law that restricts cooperation with federal immigration authorities.
Lawyers representing the federal government argued in a day-long hearing that by passing Senate Bill 54 and two other immigration laws, California had overreached its authority; California countered that the state has a right to regulate its law enforcement activities as it sees fit.
The Trump administration is seeking an injunction to stop the laws, asserting that they violate the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution and that California lacks the authority to intentionally interfere with the U.S. government's ability to enforce immigration violations.
"The state was pretty clear that it passed the laws to interfere with federal immigration enforcement," said Chad A. Readler, Acting Assistant U.S. Attorney General. "They are only being told they cannot have a blanket prohibition on voluntary cooperation with the federal government."
Attorneys for California asked U.S. District Judge John A. Mendez to dismiss the administration's lawsuit, arguing that the laws do not place any restrictions on the federal government and the administration cannot dictate how the state spends its resources.
"SB 54 is a regulation on California's own law enforcement officers," said Lee I. Sherman, Deputy Attorney General for California. "The United States cannot commandeer the state's use of its law enforcement resources."
The hearing cast a spotlight on polar opposite approaches to illegal immigration in liberal California and by Donald Trump's White House. The two sides met in court amid a national debate — and widespread outcry from Democrats — over a federal policy to prosecute more illegal border crossings and effectively separate thousands of migrant children from their undocumented parents in the process.
Protesters clashed before the proceeding began. Pro-immigrant groups chanted "no ban, no wall, sanctuary for all" outside the courthouse on I street.
"Immigrants make our economy stronger and immigrants are people," said Jazmine Gudino, a 24-year-old interpreter. "We are human beings that just want to live our lives without being prosecuted and without getting our basic rights ignored."
They linked arms to build a human wall to block counter protesters. Some followed Ben Bergquam, an outspoken opponent of SB 54, and held signs in his face.
"I can't walk down a public sidewalk while they are out here protesting to let illegal aliens into our country," Bergquam said. "Something is terribly wrong."
A small group of anti-immigration protesters at one point confronted Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg and State Sen. Kevin de León — both of whom spoke at the rally.
“Let me tell you this, President Trump,” said Steinberg during the event. “You have finally tripped the ultimate wire because when you separate children from their families, you are acting in a way that represents a crime against humanity.”
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions traveled to California and announced the federal lawsuit against the state's immigration policies in March. The laws were enacted to protect immigrant workers and prevent the Trump administration from seeking the state's help to ramp up deportations.
Senate Bill 54 limits the ability of state and local law enforcement to help federal agents enforce immigration law and carves out major exceptions for immigrants previously convicted of several hundred different crimes. The law, which went into effect this year, does not apply to the California prison system.
Assembly Bill 450, another target of the Trump administration, generally prohibits public and private employers in California from giving federal immigration officers access to nonpublic areas of a work site or employee records without a warrant. Assembly Bill 103 prevents jurisdictions from contracting with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to house immigrant detainees in local jails and allows the California attorney general to inspect detention facilities in the state.
The legal challenge boils down to a state's right to restrict cooperation with the federal government.
Mendez, appointed by former President George W. Bush, spent most of Wednesday questioning the legal arguments on both sides. He will rule later on the injunction and a motion from the state to dismiss the case.
"This whole case in a lot of ways is about the state telling the United States that we're not going along anymore and we're not participating and there's nothing you can do about it," Mendez said. "You can't mandate cooperation. That's basically, from the state of California's point of view, that is what these laws are doing."
The Bee's Anita Chabria contributed to this report.