Like two fighters circling the ring, the Trump administration and the state of California are poised to clash over local law enforcement agencies' failure to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
Last month U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions warned that jurisdictions that do not assist federal immigration agents seeking to deport undocumented immigrants will cease to receive funding from a grant program known as the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant. A week after the warning, Sessions sent a letter to the city of San Bernardino threatening to withhold federal aid if the city doesn’t step up efforts to help detain and deport people living in the country illegally.
This is the second foray of the Trump administration into California to combat policies that Sessions describes as "spending time and taxpayer money protecting criminal aliens." In April, the city of San Francisco and Santa Clara County sued in federal court to successfully block an attempt by the Trump administration to withhold funds as punishment to cities that do not honor U.S. immigration priorities.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra now reportedly is preparing to sue the federal government to prevent the loss of funds. (Chicago officials filed a lawsuit against the Justice Department earlier this week over the same proposal to withhold the public safety grants to so-called sanctuary jurisdictions.) During an appearance on NBC's Meet the Press on Sunday, Gov. Jerry Brown expressed a similar willingness to go to court.
But there could be an even better tool to fight Trump.
Angie Junck, a supervising attorney at the nonprofit Immigrant Legal Resource Center, says the biggest challenge that California poses to the Trump administration is a bill that would apply sanctuary city policies uniformly throughout the state. Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) introduced the bill, which passed the Senate and will be taken up by the Assembly later this month.
"The federal government’s is a heavy-handed approach that basically wants to kick everyone out and is driven by fear," Junck says. "The state of California recognizes the value of inclusiveness. One-quarter of our population are immigrants. We have mixed-status families — one out of every two children is from a foreign-born household. We have a quarter of the undocumented immigrants in the country.
"So we just understand the impact this has not only on individuals but on families and communities."
The bill, SB 54, would bar state and local law enforcement from inquiring about a person's immigration status or from investigating, questioning, detaining or arresting people for immigration enforcement purposes. The bill also would require state agencies, public schools and contractors to keep confidential any data that could be compromising if shared with immigration authorities.
But the law would allow criminal justice agencies to continue to share the fingerprints of people booked and arrested, which ICE uses to identify people for removal in jails and prisons nationwide. It also requires the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to notify ICE of the release times of all prisoners convicted of violent or serious felonies.
Below Junck answers our questions about the ways in which SB 54 or a lawsuit over sanctuary cities might play out. (The interview has been edited for brevity.)
How is Jeff Sessions' recent warning on Byrne grants different from what the Justice Department has tried in the past?
It’s just the tactic with the federal government on everything, just like the Muslim ban. They get hit on one end and they keep trying, they keep coming back alive. It’s like a horror movie. They just keep coming back and finding all of these different ways to try to push the envelope, because they want their deportation agenda pushed at the local level. And they’re so threatened by the state of California and its actions.
What is your sense of the sort of changes Gov. Brown has in mind for SB 54?
I think that he wants to find ways in which local law enforcement can still work with the federal government to deport people. And there are fine lines when you start doing that. The federal government can do what they need to do, but we should not be complicit in these deportations.
Both Gov. Brown and Attorney General Becerra appear willing to sue the Trump administration to stop the withholding of federal funds to sanctuary jurisdictions. What would be the on-the-ground impact if California does bring such a lawsuit?
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We think that that legal action is merited, and we encourage it. But we also believe that the main offensive against the Trump administration is SB 54. You’re really looking at limiting your state’s involvement in deportation at all levels, and that’s what’s going to give real protection to millions of immigrants in the state of California and their families.
The lawsuit would just basically prevent them from taking away money from cities and states that don’t get involved in deportations. And you can win that. But even if you win on that, if you don’t have the state actually taking concrete steps, then you’re still involved in deportations. And we know the federal government can’t meet their quotas of deportation without the help of local law enforcement. And so [SB 54] is the greatest tool to really mitigate and decrease deportations.
What do you say to opponents of SB 54, like L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell and the California State Sheriffs’ Association, who claim that SB 54 makes it harder for immigration agents to know who is behind bars and therefore to deport serious criminal offenders?
In some of the cases, under federal law, under the Constitution, you can’t detain people without a warrant regardless of your background. The fact that someone commits a crime and happens to be an immigrant has nothing to do with their immigration status. We can’t just use some of these incidents to scapegoat whole communities.