By Patrick McGreevy and Jazmine Ulloa
Opening a new front in its broad legal battle against policies of President Trump, California filed a lawsuit Wednesday alleging that the administration has overstepped its powers in expediting construction of a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border.
California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra, who has filed eight lawsuits in recent months challenging various Trump actions, continued in his role leading efforts nationally to fight proposals he deems divisive and illegal.
Becerra announced the latest legal challenge in front of existing fencing at Border Field State Park near San Diego, saying the federal government failed to comply with environmental laws and relied on federal statutes that don't authorize border wall projects in San Diego and Imperial counties.
"No one gets to ignore the laws. Not even the president of the United States," Becerra said. "The border between the U.S. and Mexico spans some 2,000 miles. The list of laws violated by the president's administration in order to build his campaign wall is almost as long."
The attorney general, who has called the wall a "medieval" solution to the immigration issue, said the project involves the improper waiver of 37 federal statutes, many aimed at protecting the environment.
Filed in federal court in San Diego and including the California Coastal Commission as a plaintiff, the lawsuit states its purpose is "to protect the State of California's residents, natural resources, economic interests, procedural rights, and sovereignty from violations of the United States Constitution" and federal law.
It also alleges that federal officials have not shown any data suggesting new border barriers in the San Diego area will reduce illegal entry into the U.S., nor that there is a significant problem in that area.
The lawsuit adds that the wall would have a chilling effect on tourism to the United States from Mexico.
In August, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a notice that it was waiving federal and state environmental laws to expedite the construction of prototypes of the wall along the border with Mexico in San Diego.
California's lawsuit claims the federal government violated the U.S. Constitution's separation-of-powers doctrine "by vesting in the Executive Branch the power to waive state and local laws."
The lawsuit also says the Department of Homeland Security decided to build the walls without complying with the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Coastal Zone Management Act.
As a result, it alleges, the federal government lacks proper environmental analysis of the impact of the 400-foot prototypes of the wall currently planned, as well as the 2,000-mile-long final wall.
The lawsuit drew criticism Wednesday from Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona), who noted that Gov. Jerry Brown acknowledged this week that it is the federal government's responsibility to enforce immigration laws.
"Now, today, the state is suing to take away a tool the federal government uses to do its job," Calvert said. "It's quite clear Democrats in Sacramento simply don't want our immigration laws enforced."
State Senate Republican leader Patricia Bates of Laguna Niguel questioned Becerra's priorities.
"I urge the attorney general to refocus his attention on the fundamental duties of his job, such as writing an impartial title and summary of the initiative to repeal the gas tax," Bates said.
A federal official declined to comment.
"As a matter of policy, we do not comment on pending litigation," said Tyler Q. Houlton, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security.
In the past, other state officials including Senate leader Kevin de León and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom have floated the idea of using environmental laws to stop the wall.
UCLA law professor Sean B. Hecht, co-executive director of the university's Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, said the lawsuit makes some strong points.
"The legal arguments look plausible to me," he said. "I think that they've identified some ways in which the federal government might not have followed the law in doing these waivers."
California's lawsuit makes "viable" claims that Trump's actions to expedite construction of the wall go beyond the scope of his authority, said Kari Hong, an assistant law professor at Boston College who specializes in immigration law.
That same claim has stopped the Trump administration from punishing "sanctuary cities" over policies on federal immigration enforcement, she added.
"This lawsuit has a very good chance of being successful in stopping the wall," Hong said.
In an interview with The Times, Becerra said he supports "doing what our experts tell us we should do" on border security, whether that includes a physical barrier, more troops on the ground or virtual enforcement through aerial detection or surveillance.
"All of the above should be used and should be considered when it comes to border enforcement and border security," he said. "We have every right to protect our sovereignty as a nation."
But it should be done the right way, he said: under the rule of law.
Critics questioned whether that stance was in conflict with the state's own actions to shield thousands of immigrants without legal residency from deportation.
U.S. Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions just Tuesday took another shot at a so-called sanctuary state bill approved by California lawmakers early Saturday, which limits local police and sheriffs from questioning, detaining and transferring people for immigration violations.
To those concerns, Becerra said he was "fully confident that California was following the law."
State Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher (D-San Diego) stood with Becerra at the event, saying the wall isn't necessary and would obstruct relations between the U.S. and Mexico.
"Maybe to people in Iowa, it sounds like a really good idea," she said. "We don't need more structure. We need a good relationship [with Mexico]."
Becerra was appointed state attorney general in January and previously sued to challenge Trump's plans to end a program that protects young immigrants from deportation, ban immigration from some countries and roll back environmental laws.
A lawsuit filed by environmental groups last week also seeks to block construction of a border wall with Mexico, alleging that the Trump administration overstepped its authority by waiving environmental reviews and other laws.
The action by the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and the Animal Legal Defense Fund seeks to prevent construction of wall prototypes in San Diego. U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials said last month that the mock-ups of Trump's border wall may be completed by the end of October.
Becerra's lawsuit is the latest attempt by California Democrats to fight the wall proposal.
A bill that would have banned state government contracts for any company that helps build the wall passed the state Senate but stalled recently in an Assembly committee.
Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) authored the bill, testifying at a committee hearing that "the wall is another attempt to separate and divide us. It sends a message that we are better off in a homogenous society."
Todd Bloomstine, a lobbyist representing the Southern California Contractors Assn., opposed the bill, asking the panel, "What next unpopular project would be [on the] blacklist?"
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