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Trump Administration and California Clash in Court Over State's Immigration 'Sanctuary' Law

Trump administration lawyers and California's attorney general jousted in a Sacramento courtroom Wednesday over a trio of laws designed to limit the state's involvement in enforcing federal immigration policy.

By John Myers

Trump administration lawyers and California's attorney general jousted in a Sacramento courtroom Wednesday over a trio of laws designed to limit the state's involvement in enforcing federal immigration policy.

The hearing before U.S. District Judge John A. Mendez is not expected to yield a decision. Even then, it will probably to lead to an appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a national showdown between the Republican president and leaders of a state that has become the epicenter of opposition to him.

The three laws passed by state lawmakers and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2017 represent the centerpiece of a political and legal resistance to Trump led by California Democrats. Two of the laws impose limits on cooperation with immigration agents. The third gives the state the power to take a firsthand look at detention centers operating under federal government contracts.

Taken together, the federal government's attorneys said the statutes are an effort to meddle with federal immigration law enforcement.

"In our mind, the point of the laws was to obstruct," said Chad Readler, the acting assistant U.S. attorney general for the civil division, who argued on behalf of the Trump administration in court.

Federal attorneys have asked Mendez to issue an injunction to block the state laws. Attorneys representing California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and Gov. Brown want the judge to dismiss the Trump administration's lawsuit.

Mendez gave no indication of how he would ultimately rule in the case. But in several instances on Wednesday morning, the judge suggested that at least some of the California statutes could be severed _ that is, parts of the laws could be upheld and parts overturned.

But attorneys for the U.S. Department of Justice hesitated, insisting that that the Constitution requires states to defer to the federal government on all matters related to immigration. That point was first made in the lawsuit filed in March by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

The federal court hearing in Sacramento was held just a few blocks from where Sessions delivered a fiery late winter speech denouncing state and local leaders for what he said was their embrace of a policy promoted by "radical extremists." That same day, Brown returned fire, likening the lawsuit and the rhetoric to "going to war against the state of California."

A steady stream of anti-Trump protesters crowded the federal courthouse's entrance on Wednesday. While they voiced support for the state laws, they also held signs to protest the just-rescinded family separation policy at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Mendez spent all of the early court session on the state's demand to inspect federal detention centers, mandated by Assembly Bill 103, and the law that limits immigration-related inspections at workplaces across California, Assembly Bill 450. The judge sounded especially skeptical of the federal government's insistence that state officials couldn't inspect the detention centers. There are nine facilities where the federal government contracts with local officials in the state. Five have already been visited by state officials.

"Where's the evidence of it being burdensome in any way?" Mendez asked federal attorneys of the state inspections.

Readler insisted that AB 103 requires federal agents to spend "time and resources" to fulfill requests from state officials who visit the facilities. "You have them questioning employees, seeking documents we don't think they have a right to seek," he said.

But the judge suggested there was value, if not in reviewing records, by at least assessing conditions inside the detention centers. "It adds transparency to a process and, in my view, more transparency is better than less when you're dealing with the government," Mendez said.

The judge also dug deep into AB 450, the state law that requires immigration agents obtain a warrant before visiting most workplaces. Before the law, according to Justice Department attorneys, an employer could consent to the visit without a court getting involved. Now, Readler argued, that option has been taken off the table.

"The effect of the state law is to make that job more difficult," he said.

An early flashpoint in the court proceeding came when Readler, whom Trump appointed to a federal circuit court judgeship two weeks ago, insisted that California lawmakers had an ulterior motive when they included a provision in the law that requires immigration agents give 72-hour notice to employers before an immigration visit.

He called that information a "warning" to those in the U.S. illegally that perhaps they need not show up to work that day.

Mendez quickly jumped in from the bench. "That's a very cynical view," he told the federal attorney. "I don't want to take it."

Although early court proceedings focused on the detention center and workplace laws, none of the challenged California statutes has received as much attention as Senate Bill 54, the policy that removed much of the discretionary power local law enforcement had to quietly share information with federal immigration agents about men and women arrested and placed in county jails. In some counties, the partnership has been so expansive that agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement have had their own workspace inside the local lockups.

SB 54 limits the information local law enforcement can give to federal agents about an inmate's release from jail to what is otherwise given to the public. It carves out an exemption when a person suspected of being in the U.S. illegally has been convicted of any of 800 crimes outlined in a 2013 state law. And it doesn't apply to any partnerships involving federal immigration officers and California state prisons.

In his court filings for the case, Becerra rejected the assertion that SB 54 bans sharing information with federal officials about a person's immigration status. Rather, he wrote, it only bans sharing "information regarding a person's release date and personal information like a home or work address."

Absent additional action by Congress, Becerra argued, blocking the sanctuary law would mean government officials could "effectively commandeer California's financial, physical, human, and information resources for federal immigration enforcement purposes."

"How California expends its law-enforcement and other resources are decisions for California to make, and the federal government cannot use an indirect application of its immigration powers to intrude into an area so integral to the State's police power," Becerra and state attorneys wrote last month.

Thomas Homan, the president's ICE director who is scheduled to retire later this month, said in a lengthy letter to Judge Mendez in March that there were "more than 119" immigrants about whom ICE could not obtain information in the San Diego area in the first two months of 2018. And he recounted one case where ICE transferred a person to San Diego police who was wanted for possession of a firearm silencer, but local officials "simply allowed him to bond out of custody without notifying ICE of the release."

In the months since Sessions announced the lawsuit to invalidate the California laws, the battle over the state's pro-immigrant position has become a cause celebre for liberal and conservative groups. More than two dozen groups or individuals filed friend of the court briefs. Sixteen states led by Republicans sharply criticized Brown and California lawmakers, as did the GOP governors of Mississippi and Maine.

A handful of California cities and counties also weighed in on the case challenging the sanctuary laws. Orange County and its top law enforcement officer, Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, filed a court brief last week that warned of dire consequences if SB 54, also known as the "California Values Act," is left in place.

In a written statement to the court, Hutchens said she and other sheriffs across California worry that dangerous migrants will be released from local jails and commit serious crimes. "I think it is a question of when, not if, this will happen," she wrote.

Her attorneys also presented data they argued show the effects of the new limits on local-federal communications. The amicus brief said that in the first four months of the year, 341 of 601 Orange County jail inmates with immigration "detainers" were released without notifying federal agents. Some of those people, the court filing claimed, "were charged with violent or serious crimes that present a public safety concern."

Mendez addressed the court filing by Hutchens early in Wednesday's proceedings, suggesting that the key question the sheriff was asking is why she and her officers can't cooperate.

"Do I simply say, 'Wait for another day'?" he asked the attorneys for the state.

(c)2018 Los Angeles Times

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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