SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday slammed California for its immigration policy, declaring that he would not stand for the insubordination of the state's lawmakers and what he called the dangerous obstruction of federal immigration laws.
Sessions also used an appearance in Sacramento to publicly announce that the administration was suing the state over laws designed to make it more difficult for federal immigration officers to operate there. He spoke before a crowd of more than 200 California law enforcement officials.
In a briefing room of the state Capitol, meanwhile, Gov. Jerry Brown unleashed a tirade against Sessions and President Donald Trump. He said the administration was "full of liars" and that Sessions was "basically going to war against the state of California."
It was highly unusual for an attorney general "to come out here and engage in a political stunt, make wild accusations, many of which are based on outright lies," Brown added, "particularly a fellow coming from Alabama talking to us about secession and protecting human and civil rights."
Warning that California's liberal politicians were endangering the state's residents and obstructing federal law, Sessions described the state's so-called sanctuary laws as a radical maneuver that would threaten public safety and throw open the nation's borders to even more illegal immigration.
Immigration law "is in the books, and its purposes are clear and just. There is no nullification, there is no secession. Federal law is the supreme law of the land," said Sessions, one of the administration's most adamant immigration restrictionists. He accused the state of intentionally using "every power the Legislature has to undermine the duly established immigration laws of America."
The lawsuit, which the Justice Department disclosed Tuesday in advance of Sessions' speech, capped a clash between the Trump administration and California that has lasted more than a year.
The administration has sought to demonstrate that it will not tolerate noncompliance with federal immigration enforcement; California's top officials, professed leaders of the anti-Trump resistance, have pushed the state to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement as little as possible.
Even as Sessions spoke, that opposition was making itself heard. Outside the hotel where Sessions was speaking, several hundred protesters marched, holding signs saying "Go Home Jeff" and "Crush ICE" and chanting, "What do we want? Sessions out!"
Shortly after Sessions' speech, Brown and the state's attorney general, Xavier Becerra, both Democrats, appeared together in the Capitol to denounce the lawsuit.
"California is in the business of public safety," Becerra said. "We are not in the business of deportation."
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Sacramento, is the first Sessions' Justice Department has filed against a local or state government over its immigration policies.
It targets three state laws passed in recent months: one that limits state and local agencies' ability to share information about criminals or suspects with federal immigration officers, unless they have been convicted of serious crimes; a second that prohibits local businesses from allowing Immigration and Customs Enforcement to examine employee records without a court order or a subpoena; and a third that gave California officials more oversight of the state's immigration detention centers.
Brown and Becerra on Wednesday defended the legislation as constitutional, saying the laws prevented neither immigration officers from working in local jails and prisons nor employers from cooperating with the agency. The employee records law, Becerra said, simply ensures that workers and employers are guaranteed "their rights and their privacy and that those are being respected."
Asked whether the law would, in effect, require warning workers in the country illegally to flee before an Immigration and Customs Enforcement visit, Brown compared the provision to the practice of notifying criminal suspects that they have a right to a lawyer.
"We are just following the law, and the law allows people to be advised of their rights," Brown said. "Anything else smacks of a more totalitarian approach to things."
Sessions had another comparison in mind.
What if, he asked, a state enacted legislation hampering the work of employees from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration or the Environmental Protection Agency? "Would you pass a law to do that?" he said.
'HOW DARE YOU?'
Beyond the specifics of the laws, Sessions railed about several instances in which he said state officials had frustrated the work of federal law enforcement.
He ripped into Libby Schaaf, the Democratic mayor of Oakland, for issuing a warning last week that Immigration and Customs Enforcement planned to arrest aliens across Northern California, an alert that infuriated agency officials who said her tip-off had allowed hundreds of their targets to slip away.
Schaaf's actions "support those who flout the law and boldly validates illegality," Sessions said, calling her warning "an embarrassment to the proud state of California."
"So here's my message to Mayor Schaaf," he said. "How dare you? How dare you needlessly endanger the lives of our law enforcement officers to promote a radical open borders agenda?"
Schaaf later echoed the refrain to criticize Sessions for tearing apart families and distorting the reality of declining violent crime in Oakland.
"How dare you vilify members of our community by trying to frighten the American public into believing that all undocumented residents are dangerous criminals?" she told reporters.
Schaaf said last week that she had not publicized any information that endangered immigration officers. She said she issued the warning because "I know that Oakland is a city of law-abiding immigrants and families who deserve to live free from the constant threat of arrest and deportation."
In Sacramento Wednesday, Sessions faced a polite, if somewhat divided, audience.
Some police chiefs and sheriffs in liberal-leaning areas have argued that their agencies must distance themselves from Immigration and Customs Enforcement to avoid scaring off immigrant residents who may be more reluctant to serve as witnesses or come forward to report crimes.
But there are many other officials across the country who say they would prefer to work with the immigration agency if the legal issues surrounding such cooperation are clarified, and some who are eager to help the federal government outright with immigration enforcement.
Those tensions were palpable at Sessions' speech, which was hosted by the California Peace Officers Association, a law enforcement advocacy group. The crowd responded to the speech with brief applause; about 10 of the more than 200 officers in the room stood to clap.
"I'm stuck in the middle," said Deputy Chief Derek Williams of the Police Department in Ontario, a midsize city east of Los Angeles with a large Hispanic population. "It's extremely bifurcated now."
While the new state laws do not affect his work on a day-to-day basis, he said, the sharp increase in Immigration and Customs Enforcement activity has fostered "a lack of trust with law enforcement" among immigrant residents. "It's a difficult time for us," he said.
Among those who endorsed Sessions' message was Paul Curry, a lobbyist for the California Correctional Supervisors Organization, which represents supervisors in the state prison system. He said California police chiefs were often caught between the immigration agency's requests and the orders of their mayors, who might embrace sanctuary policies.
"Every police officer is sworn to uphold the law not only of the state but the nation," Curry said. "The progressive agenda is running afoul of the force of our laws in the country."
California passed sanctuary laws in response to Trump's promises to sharply ramp up the deportation of people in the U.S. illegally. Sessions said several of them prevent federal immigration officers from making deportation arrests.
State officials say the policies increase public safety by promoting trust between immigrant communities and law enforcement, while allowing police resources to be used to fight other crimes.
The U.S. Supreme Court reinforced the federal government's primacy in enforcing immigration law when it blocked much of Arizona's tough 2010 immigration law on similar grounds. The high court found several key provisions undermined federal immigration law, though it upheld a provision requiring officers, while enforcing other laws, to question the immigration status of people suspected of being in the country illegally.
Trump is set to visit California next week for the first time since his election to see models of his proposed wall along the Mexican border.
Information for this article was contributed by Thomas Fuller and Vivian Yee of The New York Times and by Don Thompson, Elliot Spagat, Jonathan J. Cooper, Kathleen Ronayne, Paul Elias, John Antczak and Sadie Gurman of The Associated Press.
California Gov. Jerry Brown visits with children Wednesday at the state Capitol in Sacramento as he arrives with state Attorney General Xavier Becerra (left) to respond to remarks by Attorney General Jeff Sessions on the state’s immigration policy. Brown said it was highly unusual for Sessions “to come out here and engage in a political stunt, make wild accusations, many of which are based on outright lies.” Brown added, “Particularly a fellow coming from Alabama talking to us about secession and protecting human and civil rights.”
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf gestures while speaking during a media conference on Wednesday, March 7, 2018, in Oakland, Calif.
A Section on 03/08/2018
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