SACRAMENTO — Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday pushed back strongly against California’s challenge to Trump administration immigration policies, charging that state officials were trying to undermine federal law by embracing the “radical, irrational idea” of “open borders.”
“California, we have a problem,” Sessions told a crowd of about 250 law enforcement officials here in the state capital. “A series of actions and events has occurred that directly and adversely impact the work of our federal officers.”
He called federal law “the supreme law of the land” and said “its purpose is clear.”
“There is no nullification. There is no secession,” he said. “Open borders is a radical, irrational idea that cannot be accepted.”
Sessions’ remarks to the California Peace Officers Association followed the administration’s announcement on Tuesday night that, after a year of legal challenges from California officials, the Justice Department would go on offense and file suit against the state for what it says is obstruction of federal immigration enforcement.
The suit, filed Tuesday night in federal court in Sacramento, targets three sanctuary-focused laws that the California Legislature passed last year as part of a revolt against President Donald Trump’s vows to step up immigration enforcement.
The attorney general’s speech drew an immediate and blistering response from Gov. Jerry Brown, who in a news conference demanded a public apology for what he called Sessions’ political “stunt,” and said the Trump administration was guilty of “going to war against the State of California.”
“It will not stand,’’ Brown declared on Wednesday. “We know the Trump administration is full of liars; they’ve pled guilty already to the special counsel.’’
“This is a time to build bridges, not walls, to pull Americans together, not set us apart,” the governor added. “Like so many in the Trump administration, this attorney general has no regard for the truth.”
In threatening law-abiding immigrants who are performing important work in the California economy, Brown said, “the attorney general is initiating a reign of terror.”
He added dismissively of Sessions: “Maybe he's trying to keep his job. … A fellow from Alabama talking to us about secession? … This is pure red meat for the base.”
The leadership of the 25,000-member California Peace Officers Association said it had invited Sessions, the nation’s top law enforcement officer, to its conference at the Kimpton Hotel here to hear his views on federal immigration policies. The crowd gave the attorney general a polite reception, but never once interrupted his remarks with applause. At the conclusion, just a handful in the room gave Sessions a standing ovation, while the overwhelming number remained seated.
In his address, Sessions reserved his most caustic criticism for Oakland’s mayor, Libby Schaaf, who last week warned residents in advance of a raid by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, saying she aimed to fend off panic in her community.
“The mayor of Oakland has been actively seeking to help illegal aliens avoid apprehension by ICE,” Sessions said. “Her actions support those who flout our laws and boldly validate the illegality. Here’s my message to Mayor Schaaf: How dare you? … How dare you needlessly endanger the lives of law enforcement just to promote your radical open borders agenda?”
The attorney general also railed against Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democratic candidate for governor, who has praised Schaaf, saying that “bragging about and encouraging the obstruction of our law enforcement and the law is an embarrassment to this proud and important state.”
And Sessions specifically targeted the California attorney general, Xavier Becerra, in an interview with Breitbart News on Wednesday.
“We cannot just stand idly by while top officials in any state directly seek to disrupt federal immigration enforcement,” he said.
Sessions’ attacks on Becerra, Schaaf and Newsom — all Democrats seeking office in November — may play well with Republican grass roots in California. But invoking their names also provided political fodder to the three Democrats, who are running high-profile campaigns this year. Schaaf is seeking re-election to lead one of the state’s most liberal bastions; Newsom is the frontrunner in the California Democratic race for governor, and Becerra is seeking re-election to the office that Brown appointed him to last year.
They took to social media on Wednesday to push back at Sessions — and, by extension, Trump, whose poll numbers are historically low in California.
Newsom tweeted: “Jeff Sessions just called me an embarrassment. A man whose legacy is targeting immigrants, re-waging the failed War on Drugs, sucking-up to private prison profiteers, and apologizing for white supremacists … I take that as a HUGE compliment.”
Becerra, standing alongside Brown at the news conference on Wednesday, had a sharp response for Sessions, saying that Washington “has just failed utterly in helping us fix a broken immigration system. … Here in California, we respect the law and the Constitution. We expect the federal government to do the same.”
The state attorney general, who has repeatedly argued that the Trump administration has overstepped its bounds in its efforts to expand the dragnet to deport hundreds of undocumented immigrants in California, has filed a roster of lawsuits challenging those policies — and weeks ago warned employers that they may face fines up to $10,000 if they illegally share worker information with federal immigration officials.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said on Tuesday night that “California has chosen to purposefully contradict the will and the responsibility of the Congress to protect our homeland,” and praised the Justice Department decision to file the suit, which names as defendants the State of California, Brown and Becerra.
While Trump himself has not visited California in his first year in office, Sessions’ presence in the state drew a huge media presence — more than two dozen news crews — and a crowd of energetic and vocal protesters from Democratic, labor and immigrant rights groups who gathered outside and marched in the streets to counter his message.
State Senate Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, the author of SB 54 — the “sanctuary state” bill that is one focus of the federal government lawsuits — also planned to protest the attorney general’s presence.
Some Republicans, like Assemblyman Travis Allen, a candidate for governor, praised Sessions and said his message was long overdue.
“It’s about time,’’ he said. “California Democrats have gone too far,’’ he said. “And finally, the Department of Justice has come to California to make sure California abides, and enforces, by federal immigration law for the safety of all Californians.”
But Democratic Assemblyman Steve Glazer, who said he voted for all three immigration bills, countered that Sessions’ event had “all the makings of a stunt” and did little to advance the conservation on immigration. He said the criticism of Schaaf was unfounded.
“It’s incumbent upon all of us to let our community know what rights they have under the law,” he said.
The Justice Department lawsuit, ironically, cites an Obama-era action against the state of Arizona in claiming that the state laws violate the Constitution’s supremacy clause, which limits states’ ability to legislate in areas reserved to Congress or where Congress has sought to play a controlling role.
The “sanctuary state” law, also known as SB 54, bars state and local officials from sharing information with immigration authorities under certain circumstances and also bars transfers of certain immigrants to federal custody.
Another measure, AB 450, forbids private employers to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement at the workplace.
And the third law, AB 103, seeks to regulate contract detention facilities used to hold federal immigration prisoners.
Brown, speaking to the media on Wednesday, said of Sessions, “I hope he’ll shape up before it’s too late,’’ because “this lawsuit is going to last a lot longer than the Trump administration.”
David Siders contributed to this report.