After more than a year on defense against a flurry of legal challenges to President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, the Justice Department is going on offense, filing a suit against the State of California that alleges obstruction of federal immigration enforcement.
The suit, set for filing Tuesday night in federal court in Sacramento, targets three sanctuary-focused laws that the California Legislature passed last year as part of a backlash against Trump’s vows to step up immigration enforcement.
The litigation is modeled on a suit the Obama administration filed in 2010 against a controversial state law in Arizona that sought to crack down on illegal immigrants, SB 1070. That case resulted in a Supreme Court ruling that found that some provisions of the Arizona law unconstitutionally intruded into Congress’ right to set federal immigration policy.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions is traveling to California to tout the new lawsuit Wednesday morning in a speech to law enforcement officials in Sacramento.
“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 plans to tell the California Peace Officers Association meeting, according to excerpts of his planned remarks. “We are fighting to make your jobs safer and to help you reduce crime in America. And I believe we are going to win.”
The lawsuit comes as top federal immigration officials are seething at California officials for flouting federal immigration laws. Just last week, the senior official at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Thomas Homan, blasted Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf for warning residents about impending immigration raids. Homan said the move put officers at risk.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen lauded the decision to file the suit, which names as defendants the State of California as well as Gov. Jerry Brown and state Attorney General Xavier Becerra.
“California has chosen to purposefully contradict the will and the responsibility of the Congress to protect our homeland,” Nielsen said in a statement. “I appreciate the efforts of Attorney General Sessions and the Department of Justice to uphold the rule of law and protect American communities.”
The new suit seeks a preliminary injunction against three specific California laws, claiming that they 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.
One California law, SB 54, prohibits state and local officials from sharing information with immigration authorities under certain circumstances and also bars transfers of certain immigrants to federal custody. The suit argues that this law is not only unconstitutional, but also violates a specific federal statute on such information sharing.
Another of the state’s measures, AB 450, forbids private employers from cooperating with federal immigration enforcement at the workplace.
The third law, AB 103, seeks to regulate contract detention facilities used to hold federal immigration prisoners.
During a briefing for reporters on Tuesday, senior Justice Department officials said it was inconceivable that California would have passed such laws to interfere with criminal law enforcement agencies like the FBI. Federal immigration laws deserve to be treated with equal respect, said the officials, who spoke on condition that they not be identified or quoted.
Justice Department officials would not say on Tuesday whether the suit had been discussed in advance with White House officials.
Justice Department reviews continue of policies in localities that have bucked federal immigration enforcement, the department officials said. The officials made clear that their attention was going beyond enforcement of federal grant conditions and that states and local governments could face legal action even if they didn’t receive Justice Department money.
By taking the suit to Sacramento, the Justice Department is avoiding some liberal federal judges in San Francisco and Los Angeles who have ruled against aspects of the administration’s immigration policies. A Justice Department official said the suit was being filed in Sacramento because that is California’s capital.
In recent weeks, Sessions has railed against federal judges for issuing nationwide injunctions that control federal policy on issues like immigration.
The new suit does not seek a nationwide ruling, but does ask a single federal judge in Sacramento to issue a preliminary injunction that will apply statewide, barring enforcement of the three challenged laws anywhere in California even though the state has four federal judicial districts.