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A U.S. judge raised doubts Wednesday about the Trump administration's claim that California sought to intentionally obstruct against enforcement of federal immigration laws.
U.S. District Judge John Mendez made the comments during a hearing in Sacramento on the federal government's request to halt three of California's so-called sanctuary laws. The hearing lasted more than six hours and ended with no formal decision on the government's request for a preliminary injunction.
The judge said he planned to issue a written opinion on the preliminary injunction as soon as possible.
During the hearing, Mendez said he wasn't convinced California lawmakers had passed the sanctuary statutes to hinder federal immigration enforcement efforts. The federal government is seeking to block three of the state's sanctuary laws, including one that applies to federal detention facilities where immigrants are being held.
Hundreds of protesters were outside the federal courthouse in Sacramento on Wednesday as the judge heard arguments.
Chad Readler, a U.S. Department of Justice attorney, told Mendez it was clear that the state had passed the sanctuary laws last year to halt immigration enforcement. But the judge, a 2007 appointee of President George W. Bush, responded: "I'm not that clear and that convinced."
Mendez said he took the passage of the sanctuary laws as a sign the state didn't want to participate in the U.S. government's immigration policies. California is home to about 25 percent of the nation's undocumented population.
Angela Chan, the policy director at the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco, said the judge during the hearing seemed to be leaning toward the view that "you can't mandate state cooperation. It was the heart of what was driving a lot of his questions."
The federal government claims the sanctuary laws in California "have interfered, and will continue to interfere, with federal law enforcement efforts," including activities involving U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.
Even so, there have been more than 650 arrests since March in California of undocumented immigrants.
Attorneys for California have contended that the sanctuary policies help build trust, and they support relations between police agencies and immigrant communities.
Wednesday's hearing came as President Donald Trump faced widespread criticism from Democrats and some Republicans for the administration's "zero tolerance" immigration policy, including its recent practice of separating children from migrant families. On Wednesday, Trump reversed himself and signed an executive order allowing detained migrant parents to remain with their children.
Among the protesters outside the federal courthouse Wednesday were critics of the administration's policy of separating migrant families and Trump's border wall. Some held up signs that read "Keep Families Together" and "Family Separation is UnAmerican."
There were also pro-Trump supporters outside the courthouse.
In March, the DOJ filed a lawsuit against California's sanctuary laws, including challenging state Senate Bill 54, formally known as the California Values Act, that went into effect in January. That law bars local authorities from asking about the immigration status of people during routine interactions or participating in federal enforcement actions.
Wednesday's hearing also was for arguments in California's motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
"California's laws work in concert — not conflict — with federal laws and are fully constitutional," California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement last month in announcing the motion to dismiss the federal lawsuit.
Added Becerra, "The 10th Amendment of the Constitution gives the people of California, not the Trump administration, the power to decide how we will provide for the public safety and general welfare of our state. The federal government has no grounds to intrude on California's constitutional authority to enact laws designed to protect its people."
Critics of SB 54 contend it jeopardizes public safety because it made it tougher to get incarcerated immigrants once they are released from jails to the custody of federal immigration agents. They say it can result in violent criminals getting released back into communities.
The administration's motion for preliminary injunction involves SB 54 as well as two other state sanctuary laws, including Assembly Bill 450, or the Immigrant Worker Protection Act, that went into effect in January and limits the ability of employers to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
Becerra has warned businesses they could face fines of $10,000 for violating the AB 450.
AB 450 requires employers to notify all employees of inspections of their employment records by U.S. immigration agencies within 72 hours of receiving notice of a federal audit. It also bars businesses from providing immigration agents access to a workplace without a warrant and requires a subpoena for federal agents to access employment records.
Critics contend AB 450 can be confusing for employers and also has scared away workers. The state's Chamber of Commerce last year came out opposing the legislation and said it "puts employers in a no-win situation between federal immigration enforcement and state enforcement. "
"The statute really puts the employer between a rock and a hard place," the judge said Wednesday.
However, state attorneys pointed out there are places in the federal statute that allows businesses to cooperate without violating the state law.
The government's request for a preliminary injunction only applies to three of 25 provisions of SB 54 law. It applies to the sharing of release dates for incarcerated immigrants, sharing of home and work addresses, as well as allowing the transfer of inmates into the custody of U.S. immigration authorities.
There's also Assembly Bill 103, dubbed the Detention Review law, which took effect in June 2017. It imposes limits on local jurisdictions establishing, modifying or renewing contracts involving locked detention facilities used to house or detain noncitizens for purposes of civil immigration custody. It also applies to federal detention facilities where undocumented immigrants are being held.
During the hearing, Readler said states have no place being involved as inspector of federal facilities such as those housing immigrants.
In recent months, there's been a backlash over the sanctuary policies from local jurisdictions up and down the state. Some of the same local jurisdictions have filed briefs in support of the Trump administration's lawsuit against the state.
Several counties — including San Diego, Orange and Tuolumne — as well as more than two dozen cities have come out against sanctuary laws. Last month, Trump invited a group of local officials from California fighting the state's sanctuary policies to a White House roundtable on immigration.
Some of the same local jurisdictions in California also have filed friend of the court briefs in support of the Trump administration's lawsuit against the state. California also has at least two dozen cities and counties that have filed briefs supporting the state's side.
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.