WASHINGTON — The Trump administration, seeking to force a defiant California to cooperate with its agenda of stepped-up immigrant deportations, went to federal court Tuesday to invalidate three state laws — the administration’s most direct challenge yet to the state’s policies.
Administration officials say the three laws in question, all passed by the Legislature last year, blatantly obstruct federal immigration law and thus violate the Constitution’s supremacy clause, which gives federal law precedence over state enactments.
“The Department of Justice and the Trump administration are going to fight these unjust, unfair, and unconstitutional policies that are imposed on you,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions plans to tell a meeting of the California Peace Officers Association in Sacramento on Wednesday, according to excerpts of his remarks released by the Justice Department. “We are fighting to make your jobs safer and to help you reduce crime in America. And I believe that we are going to win.”
The laws make it a crime for business owners to voluntarily help federal agents find and detain undocumented workers, prohibit local law enforcement from alerting immigration agents when detainees are released from custody, and create a state inspection program for federal immigration detention centers. Administration officials, who briefed reporters before the suit was filed, said other states that are pursuing laws similar to California’s are also likely to be targeted in court.
The suit, which administration lawyers planned to file in federal court in Sacramento, considerably raises the tension between the administration and the most populous state in the country. California officials consistently have sought to stymie Trump’s efforts to impose policies incompatible with the more permissive vision of the state’s leaders and the liberal leanings of its electorate. Many state and local officials in California say the administration’s stepped-up deportation efforts are making communities less safe and undermining local economies.
The case will test the power of the Trump administration to force California police departments and local governments to cooperate with deportations and other aggressive enforcement actions targeting people who entered the country illegally or overstayed their visas. It reflects the administration’s limited tolerance for state’s rights when states want to go in a sharply different direction than the administration.
California officials were preparing for the suit even before it was filed. After the Justice Department announced Sessions would be making a major announcement in Sacramento, state leaders expressed confidence that Washington’s legal attacks would fail.
“We’ll see what the courts say,” said Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, a former legislative leader.
“So far the administration’s record there is not stellar,” he said, referring to the administration’s repeated losses in court. “We didn’t pass these laws to protect people with serious criminal backgrounds. We are protecting our communities from immigration agents intimidating people and overreaching in very serious ways.”
The administration, however, could be in a stronger position in this case than in previous court battles over immigration issues, including court rulings against early versions of Trump’s travel ban and against efforts to cut off some federal money to cities with so-called sanctuary policies.
In many other cases, the administration has been trying to swiftly unravel or reshape well-established environmental, workplace or immigration regulations that were grounded in years of case law or voluminous administrative proceedings. In this case, it is California that is arguably in uncharted legal territory, imposing barriers aimed at undermining federal law enforcement efforts.