Attorney General Jeff Sessions went to the belly of the beast on Wednesday to announce his department’s legal action challenging California’s increasingly strident “sanctuary state” opposition to federal immigration law enforcement.
Speaking to the California Peace Officers’ Association in Sacramento, Sessions said that Congress, President Donald Trump, and the American people want Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and other federal law enforcement officers to be able carry out their duties.
“But California, we have a problem,” he said. “A series of actions and events has occurred here that directly and adversely affects the work of our federal officers.”
Sessions pointed to Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf (pictured above left, next to Sessions), who publicly warned last month that an ICE raid in northern California was imminent.
“Her actions support those who flout the law, and [that] only validates illegality,” he said. “There’s no other way to interpret those remarks.”
Schaaf remained unbowed, however, arguing her administration’s “sanctuary” policies have made Oakland safer.
“Now is good time to remind our community Oakland’s violent crime rate has dropped dramatically in the last five years,” she tweeted on Wednesday.
California Gov. Jerry Brown defended the state’s sanctuary laws.
“There’s no doubt that the police can do their job,” he told reporters in the state capital. “Now, the federal government ought to do its job and stop blaming California for its own inability to solve the problem, whether it’s of crime or whether it’s of immigration.”
Protesters who greeted Sessions offered a stark reminder of the kind of resistance he faces. Rich Morales, campaign director for the Oakland-based Pacific Institute for Community Organization’s immigrant justice initiative, condemned Sessions.
“For undocumented families who already live in fear of being separated from their families, we know U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ announcement brings heightened anxiety,” he said in a statement.
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“This is exactly what Sessions wants: to coerce state and local officials in California and beyond to be enablers in President Trump’s aggressive deportation machine. But we will not back down from our commitment to keep parents with their children,” Morales said.
“Immigration law is the province of the federal government. It’s in the Constitution.”
In suing, Sessions is citing the same principle that allowed former President Barack Obama’s administration to block state laws in Arizona and Alabama that targeted illegal immigrants. The Supreme Court ruled that states could not pre-empt the federal government’s exclusive authority over immigration.
“Immigration law is the province of the federal government,” the attorney general said. “It’s in the Constitution.”
Sessions said the supremacy of federal authority has been settled since the Civil War and invited doubters to visit Gettysburg battlefield or the tombstones of Abraham Lincoln and slavery-defending South Carolina Sen. John C. Calhoun.
Hans von Spakovsky, a legal scholar at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the Department of Justice is on solid legal ground to challenge state and local laws that impede federal law enforcement.
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“Under our federal system, states don’t have to assist the federal government with immigration enforcement,” he told LifeZette. “But California has gone over the line by actually obstructing the ability of immigration enforcement. That, I think, is a legal problem for California.”
Dale Wilcox, executive director of the Immigration Reform Law Institute (IRLI), argued that the Trump administration is right to hold California jurisdictions accountable.
“Those who support sanctuary policies may think they are channeling Gandhi, but they are more like Al Capone,” he said in a statement. “Flagrant disregard for our federal immigration laws endangers native-born American citizens, legal immigrants, and even the illegal aliens whom these policies claim to protect.”
Chris Chmielenski, director of content and activism at NumbersUSA, said the suit will hinge on the precise claims made by the administration and the remedies it seeks.
“It’s hard to determine how successful this’ll be,” he said. “But it seems like they have a case.”
Von Spakovsky said California’s stance in the Arizona litigation during the previous administration might come back to haunt the state in court.
“Given how strongly California supported the Obama administration in the Arizona case, it’s going to show what hypocrites they are,” he said.
In his speech Wednesday, Sessions offered a message directly to Schaaf: “How dare you, how dare you needlessly endanger the lives of our law enforcement officers to promote a radical open-borders agenda.”
But Sessions said it is more than one mayor. He noted that Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom publicly praised her action and that other California officials thwart ICE in a way they never would dream of undermining other federal agencies.
Sessions said Ventura County in January refused to honor an ICE hold request and released an illegal immigrant convicted of the continuous sexual abuse of a child.
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The attorney general cited acting ICE chief Thomas Homan, who indicated his agency failed to arrest 800 criminal illegal immigrants because of Schaaf’s intervention.
“Those are 800 wanted criminals who are now at large in that community, 800 wanted criminals that ICE will now have to pursue by other means,” he said.
(photo credit, homepage image: Councilmember Libby Schaaf, CC BY 2.0, by Jim Ratliff / U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, CC 0, by U.S. Southern Command; photo credit, article image: Libby Schaaf…, CC BY 2.0, by Jim Ratliff / Jeff Sessions, CC BY-SA 3.0, by Gage Skidmore)