Protesters gather outside Kimpton hotel where Jeff Sessions is speaking
Immigrants, with and without papers, are part of California’s economic and social fabric. This state has long experience in balancing that reality with the need for law and order – and with the perils of allowing divisive and cynical interests to use foreign-born people as political pawns.
So when the Legislature and California cities passed sanctuary laws to curb the inevitable overreach of a president who demonizes immigrants, it was with the understanding that the state would soon find itself in the federal cross-hairs.
No one is surprised at the dishonest lawsuit filed late Tuesday by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in federal district court in Sacramento. President Donald Trump has made it clear he wants mass arrests and deportation, no matter how costly, cruel and counterproductive – and California has made it clear we will not play along.
Law enforcement officers are being blocked from doing their duty and endangered by unconstitutional laws passed to score political points, Sessions told members of the California Peace Officers Association in Sacramento on Wednesday, as if they were somehow the ones being victimized.
“This is a great state,” Sessions said. “I don’t want to be in this position of challenging these laws.”
Spare us. Sessions has been saber rattling for months, vowing to bring the hammer down on California with large immigration raids, withholding federal funding and threatening to arrest mayors of sanctuary cities. Gov. Jerry Brown and Attorney General Xavier Becerra are both personally named as defendants in the lawsuit.
It’s is an overreaction to a non-problem. That was certainly the message from state and local politicians, who came out in force on Wednesday morning, staging a raucous rally behind the Kimpton Sawyer Hotel where Sessions was speaking. They urged the hundreds of activists in attendance to continue to uphold California’s values of diversity and inclusion in the face of a trumped-up legal pushback.
“This is basically going to war against the state of California, the engine of the American economy. It’s not wise, it’s not right and it will not stand,” Brown said at a later press conference.
California’s laws are nowhere near as obstructionist as Trump and Sessions would have it. For example, the Justice Department claims sanctuary laws make it impossible for immigration authorities to deport criminals. That’s a lie.
California, in fact, does allow ICE agents to work with local authorities to deport immigrants convicted of serious crimes. But our laws bar local law enforcement officers from “performing the functions of an immigration officer” by, among other things, alerting ICE when an undocumented immigrant is about to be released from custody, or asking a person about his or her immigration status during routine interactions.
We do this for good reasons. No one in state or local government is interested in thwarting the deportation of undocumented immigrants with felony convictions, but history has shown that immigrant communities simply stop talking to the police when any interaction with law enforcement can lead to deportation.
The state also has an enlightened self-interest in not tearing apart otherwise law-abiding immigrant families, who often have a mixture of documented and undocumented members. And taxpayers shouldn’t have to double-pay for local resources to do immigration enforcement, which is a federal job.
Similarly, California law prevents business owners from handing employee records over to federal agents without a court order, in part because unscrupulous employers have called ICE to intimidate and avoid fairly paying employees. And a third state statute targeted by the suit gives California the right to inspect federal detention facilities where immigrants are being held because many are privately run and have had a history of abuses.
Beyond all this, though, California has seen that the Trump administration can’t be trusted to prioritize dangerous criminals over, say, decent productive people who have simply overstayed their visas. Under federal law, being in the U.S. without authorization is a civil infraction, not a crime. But, over the past year, Sessions and acting ICE director Thomas Homan have abused their authority.
ICE has targeted law-abiding people on their way to work or to drop off their kids off at school, and has separated children from parents. Cases in which California’s laws may have let real criminals give ICE the slip are rare.
And practically speaking, it is not in California’s interest to enable this administration’s inaccurate and repugnant view of immigration. An estimated 2.6 million undocumented immigrants live in California, including about 10 percent of the state’s work force. About 12 percent of public school children have an undocumented parent.
To Californians, these people aren’t “illegals” or “criminals.” They’re neighbors, co-workers, classmates, friends and, sometimes, family.
It’s not good for public safety when reports of sexual assault and domestic violence plummet, as they have in Los Angeles, because residents fear deportation if they interact with cops or testify in court. It’s bad for California’s economy when laborers are too afraid to show up for work at Bay Area construction sites or Central Valley farms. California learned this the hard way in the 1990s with Proposition 187.
Legally, pragmatically and morally, California is on the righteous side of this battle. Let Trump and Sessions bring it on.