Department of Justice Sues California For Immigrant Sanctuary Policies

By Alfonso Serrano Mar 07, 2018

In its most forceful move yet against sanctuary jurisdictions, the Department of Justice (DOJ) on Tuesday (March 6) sued California and the state’s governor and attorney general for state laws that grant protections to immigrants with undocumented status. It’s the latest volley in a mounting dispute between the Trump administration and states that limit cooperation on immigration enforcement with federal authorities.

The suit aims to block three California laws, enacted last year, that prohibit private employers from cooperating with federal officials and restrict local law enforcement officers from providing information to federal authorities, among other things. Attorney General Jeff Sessions discussed the lawsuit today (March 7) at an annual gathering of law enforcement officials in Sacramento, saying that California’s laws are a "plain violation of common sense."

The lawsuit argues that California lacks the authority to impede cooperation with federal immigration enforcement efforts. It reads:

This lawsuit challenges three California statutes that reflect a deliberate effort by California to obstruct the United States’ enforcement of federal immigration law, to regulate private entities that seek to cooperate with federal authorities consistent with their obligations under federal law, and to impede consultation and communication between federal and state law enforcement officials. 

California Governor Jerry Brown and Attorney General Xavier Bercerra met the lawsuit with defiance. In a late Tuesday tweet, Gov. Brown mocked the administration for filing the lawsuit.


Immigration advocates also quickly denounced the lawsuit as another attack on vulnerable immigrant families subjected to perpetual fear of deportation under the Trump administration.

"All of these laws have been significant steps toward California extracting itself from the shameful and often unlawful, practice of deportation," Grisel Ruíz, a staff attorney at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center who leads the organization’s state legislative work, told Colorlines. "While there is still work to be done—advocates continue to fight for the strongest local policies possible—we have seen these laws are making an impact on the ground."

Tuesday’s lawsuit is the latest attempt to crack down on sanctuary cities and states. In late January, the DOJ threatened 23 jurisdictions—including California and New York City—with subpoenas unless they provided documents showing cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) over federal immigrations laws. The jurisdictions risk losing $39 million in grants if they had not complied by February 23. As of press time, there has been no public update on the status of these subpoenas.

Last fall, a federal judge ruled that the DOJ cannot withhold grant money from uncooperative cities, ruling that the attorney general had overstepped his authority. A second judge issued a permanent injunction in November against President Donald Trump’s executive order, issued within days of his presidency, that sought to deny federal funding to sanctuary cities.

Within 100 days of Trump’s executive order, ICE arrested some 41,000 immigrants—a 37.6 percent increase over the same period in 2016. That policy shift and other threats against sanctuary jurisdictions have embedded fear among undocumented immigrant communities and often resulted in lengthy detentions. Trump critics have also accused ICE officials of specifically targeting immigration activists for their political advocacy.

Tension between California and the DOJ regarding immigration policy intensified last week, after Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf warned residents of an imminent ICE operation to round up immigrants. Although the four-day raid resulted in 232 arrests, the White House warned that Schaaf may have engaged in obstruction of justice.

Despite efforts to protect immigrants from deportations, sanctuary cities and states have witnessed narrow success against ICE raids. Fueled by interior detentions of non-criminals, ICE arrested 41 percent more immigrants in 2017 compared to the previous year. 

Much like California state officials, immigration advocates remained defiant on Wednesday in the wake of the DOJ lawsuit.

"California should not be a force multiplier of the federal government’s well fueled deportation machine, which in recent days has caused needless fear among our communities," Ruíz, of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, said in an emailed statement. "This is yet another example of the federal government’s fear mongering and during these times it is important that we stand strong, not stand down."