U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is taking the fight over the nation’s immigration policy directly to California by suing to block state laws that extend protections to people living in the U.S. illegally.
He is expected to speak to law enforcement officials in the state’s capital Wednesday, just hours after the U.S. Justice Department filed suit — the most aggressive move yet in the Trump administration’s push to force so-called sanctuary cities and states to cooperate with immigration authorities.
The U.S. Justice Department is challenging three California laws that, among other things, bar police from asking people about their citizenship status or participating in federal immigration enforcement activities. The suit filed in federal court in Sacramento says the laws are unconstitutional and have kept federal agents from doing their jobs.
“The Department of Justice and the Trump administration are going to fight these unjust, unfair and unconstitutional policies that have been imposed on you,” Sessions said in prepared remarks. “I believe that we are going to win.”
California officials remained defiant, with Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown mimicking President Trump on Twitter as he criticized Sessions for coming to Sacramento “to further divide and polarize America. Jeff, these political stunts may be the norm in Washington, but they don’t work here. SAD!!!”
Brown is named in the lawsuit along with Democratic Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who said the state is on firm legal footing.
“Our track record so far when it comes to any dispute with the federal government has been pretty good,” Becerra said.
The lawsuit is the latest salvo in an escalating feud between the Trump administration and California, which has resisted the president on issues from taxes to marijuana policy and defiantly refuses to help federal agents detain and deport immigrants. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has said it will increase its presence in California, and Sessions wants to cut off funding to jurisdictions that won’t cooperate.
“I say: Bring it on,” said California Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, a Los Angeles Democrat who wrote the so-called sanctuary state bill. Democratic Assembly Speaker Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon was among those suggesting that Sessions shouldn’t come at all.
The lawsuit was filed as the Justice Department also reviews Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf’s decision to warn of an immigration sweep in advance, which ICE said allowed hundreds of immigrants to elude detention. Schaaf said Tuesday the city would “continue to inform all residents about their constitutional rights.”
The California laws were passed in response to Trump’s promises to sharply ramp up the deportation of people living in the U.S. illegally.
One prohibits employers from letting immigration agents enter worksites or view employee files without a subpoena or warrant, an effort to prevent workplace raids. Another stops local governments from contracting with for-profit companies and ICE to hold immigrants. Justice Department officials said that violates the Constitution’s supremacy clause, which renders invalid state laws that conflict with federal ones.
The Supreme Court reinforced the federal government’s primacy in enforcing immigration law when it blocked much of Arizona’s tough 2010 immigration law on similar grounds. The high court found several key provisions undermined federal immigration law, though it upheld a provision requiring officers, while enforcing other laws, to question the immigration status of people suspected of being in the country illegally.
In this case, California “has chosen to purposefully contradict the will and responsibility of Congress to protect our homeland,” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in a statement.
Sessions, who has blamed sanctuary city policies for crime and gang violence, is set to speak Wednesday to groups representing police chiefs, sheriffs, district attorneys, narcotics investigators and the California Highway Patrol. Only the California State Sheriffs’ Association actively opposed the so-called sanctuary law.
Protesters from labor unions, Democratic Party and immigrant rights organizations planned to rally along with some state and local elected officials outside the hotel where Sessions will speak.
Becerra, who is up for election in November, said sanctuary policies increase public safety by promoting trust between immigrant communities and law enforcement, while allowing police resources to be used to fight other crimes.
“We’re in the business of public safety, not deportation,” he said.
Associated Press writers Jonathan Cooper and Kathleen Ronayne in Sacramento contributed to this report. Gurman reported from Washington.