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Justice Department sues California over 'sanctuary' laws that aid those in US illegally

President Trump listens as Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks during a swearing in ceremony in the Oval Office of the White House on Feb. 9. Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford
President Trump listens as Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks during a swearing in ceremony in the Oval Office of the White House on Feb. 9. Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford

WASHINGTON - The Justice Department dramatically escalated its war on "sanctuary" jurisdictions Tuesday, alleging in a lawsuit that the state of California has violated the Constitution with laws that are friendly to undocumented immigrants.

In a complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Sacramento just after 9 p.m. Eastern time, the Justice Department alleged that three recently enacted California laws obstruct enforcement of federal immigration law and harm public safety.

The Justice Department asked a federal judge to block the California laws, which restrict how state businesses and law enforcement agencies can cooperate with immigration authorities. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is to address the lawsuit in a speech Wednesday at the California Peace Officers Association's 26th Annual Law Enforcement Day, saying, in part: "We are fighting to make your jobs safer and to help you reduce crime in America. And I believe we are going to win," according to an excerpt of his prepared remarks.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, D, said Tuesday night that while he had yet to examine what the Justice Department filed, he felt the state was abiding by the Constitution and cooperating with its federal partners to foster public safety.

"States and local jurisdictions have the right to determine which policies are best for their communities," he said.

California Gov. Jerry Brown, D, wrote on Twitter, "At a time of unprecedented political turmoil, Jeff Sessions has come to California to further divide and polarize America. Jeff, these political stunts may be the norm in Washington, but they don't work here. SAD!!!"

The Trump administration and the Justice Department have been waging an increasingly acrimonious battle with sanctuary jurisdictions, although the latest lawsuit is perhaps the most consequential step yet. It sets up a clash not just on what is the best immigration policy to promote public safety, but also on what power the federal government should exert over the states.

Although the court is being asked to consider only California, which this year became a "sanctuary state" to some fanfare, the court's decision could have far-reaching consequences for other jurisdictions with similar policies. There is no formal definition of a "sanctuary" jurisdiction, but the Justice Department has put dozens of other locales in its crosshairs, this year threatening to subpoena 23 jurisdictions, including Chicago and New York City, that it suspects of unlawfully interfering with federal immigration enforcement.

A senior Justice Department official said department lawyers are still evaluating other places' laws and could bring other lawsuits - although the measures California passed stood out as being especially high-profile and transgressive of what Sessions thought was constitutional.

Becerra has proved to be a thorn in the Trump administration's side. He noted in a recent interview with The Washington Post that the state had 28 lawsuits against the Trump administration and - at that time - had not lost a case. Later that day, a judge ruled against the state in a suit over the Trump administration's move to try to expedite border-wall construction.

"Our track record so far when it comes to any dispute with the federal government has been pretty good on this count," Becerra said Tuesday night.

The new lawsuittakes aimat three California laws: Assembly Bill 450, which prohibits private employers from giving immigration officials access to workplaces or documents for enforcement without a court order; Assembly Bill 103, which created a state inspection system for immigration detention facilities; and Senate Bill 54, which limits what state and local law enforcement authorities can communicate about some suspects and which people they can transfer to federal custody.

The suit argues that the measures are preempted by federal law and thus violate the Constitution's Supremacy Clause. A senior Justice Department official said the department hopes a judge will be able to take action in the case in a matter of weeks, after setting a briefing schedule for California to respond.

"The provisions of state law at issue have the purpose and effect of making it more difficult for federal immigration officers to carry out their responsibilities in California," Justice Department lawyers wrote. "The Supremacy Clause does not allow California to obstruct the United States' ability to enforce laws that Congress has enacted or to take actions entrusted to it by the Constitution."

The Justice Department's suing states over their laws is uncommon but not unheard of. Toward the end of President Barack Obama's tenure, his administration sued North Carolina over what came to be known as the "bathroom bill," which barred transgender people from using restrooms that did not correspond with the sex on their birth certificates. The state ultimately repealed and replaced the measure, and the Trump Justice Department said that meant the case should be dropped.

The Justice Department during the Obama administration also sued North Carolina and Texas over their voter ID laws, and it sued Arizona over a law designed to crack down on illegal immigration. That case ultimately made it to the Supreme Court, which struck down portions of the law but let stand the provision requiring police officers to check the immigration status of people they detained and suspected were in the country without legal documentation.

Former Attorney General Eric Holder Jr., who was tapped to represent the California State Senate in private practice, opined in a letter that Senate Bill 54 "fully complies with the Constitution and federal law."

President Donald Trump effectively declared war on sanctuary jurisdictions within a week of taking office, signing an executive order stating that such places "have caused immeasurable harm to the American people and to the very fabric of our Republic" and threatening to withhold federal funds from them. That order, though, triggered legal challenges, and in April, the administration suffered a setback when a federal judge in San Francisco blocked the order's implementation.

Later, a judge in Chicago similarly ruled that the attorney general had exceeded his authority in tying federal grant money to jurisdictions' cooperation with immigration officials, and a judge in Philadelphia ruled that the city was in compliance with immigration law and blocked the Justice Department from withholding money there.

This time, the Justice Department will enter court as the plaintiff in a suit, forcing California to appear as the defendant and make the case that its actions are legal.

California is not the only jurisdiction to draw the ire of the Justice Department, but tensions between Justice and the state have been particularly acute. As Brown was contemplating signing a law late last year that would limit how state and local police could cooperate with federal immigration enforcement, Sessions said publicly that the measure would endanger law enforcement officers and neighborhoods. Brown ultimately signed it.

Last month, Oakland's Democratic mayor warned residents that Immigration and Customs Enforcement was planning a raid, just before authorities took into custody more than 150 people in Northern California suspected of violating immigration laws.

ICE Deputy Director Thomas Homan said that hundreds were able to dodge the operation, "thanks to the mayor's irresponsible decision."

In a statement released about the new lawsuit, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said: "California has chosen to purposefully contradict the will and responsibility of the Congress to protect our homeland. I appreciate the efforts of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the Department of Justice to uphold the rule of law and protect American communities."

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