Judge denies Trump administration's bid to block California's immigrant sanctuary laws

Key Points
  • A U.S. judge in Sacramento denied the federal government's request to block two California laws that seek to protect undocumented immigrants.
  • U.S. District Judge John Mendez also temporarily barred a third law that had required employers to restrict federal immigration officials' access to workplaces.
  • The Trump administration sued California in March over three of the state's so-called sanctuary laws.
  • The rulings were in response to a preliminary injunction sought by the Justice Department.
US Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Nicholas Kamm | AFP | Getty Images

A federal judge rejected the U.S. Justice Department's request to block California's "sanctuary laws" protecting undocumented immigrants, handing a defeat to the Trump administration on one of its signature issues. But the judge also temporarily barred a law that had required employers to restrict federal immigration officials' access to workplaces.

The rulings were issued Wednesday by U.S. District Judge John Mendez in Sacramento, and were made public Thursday.

Mendez's rulings were in response to a preliminary injunction sought by the Justice Department, which sued the state over the laws.

The rulings do not decide the final question of the controversial laws' legalilty.

Mendez in his decision wrote that the federal government failed to establish that California's sanctuary laws sought to intentionally obstruct against enforcement of federal immigration laws.

However, Mendez did say the state could no longer compel businesses, under the law known as AB 450, to prevent immigration officials from accessing a workplace and employment records without first obtaining a search warrant or a subpoena. Businesses, however, are free to insist on those conditions.

At the same time, the judge said he "joins the ever-growing chorus of Federal Judges in urging our elected officials to set aside the partisan and polarizing politics dominating the current immigration debate" and work together to draft laws "that addresses this critical political issues."

"Our Nation deserves it," Mendez wrote. "Our Constitution demands it."

California's governor, Jerry Brown, said in a statement: “I agree with Judge Mendez that piecemeal judicial decisions won’t solve the nation’s immigration challenges. Only Congress can chart the path forward by rising above mindless, partisan divisions and working together to solve this problem, not exacerbate it.”

Public safety claims

The administration's lawsuit against California, filed in March, contends that three state laws passed last year to protect undocumented immigrants against deportation violate the U.S. Constitution.

One of the laws allows the state attorney general to inspect federal immigration detention facilities. Another law restricts the cooperation state and local law enforcement agencies can provide to federal immigration officials.

Both of those laws remain in effect, despite claims by the Trump administration that they imperil the safety of the public by preventing federal authorities from detaining dangerous undocumented immigrants after they are released from state or local custody.

"California has no authority to enforce laws that obstruct or otherwise conflict with, or discriminate against, federal immigration enforcement efforts," the Justice Department had said it its complaint.

However, the judge brushed aside those claims: “The Court disagrees and instead finds that California’s decision not to assist federal immigration enforcement in its endeavors is not an ‘obstacle’ to that enforcement effort."

“Plaintiff’s argument that SB 54 makes immigration enforcement far more burdensome begs the question: more burdensome than what?" Mendez wrote. “Standing aside does not equate to standing in the way.“

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The case, when it is ultimately decided, is likely to get appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which previously handed the Trump administration a setback on its travel ban. It also could end up before the U.S. Supreme Court, which on June 26 upheld the travel ban.

Justice Department spokesman Devin O'Malley said, in response to the ruling, that, "California’s political leadership clearly intended to obstruct federal immigration authorities in their state" when it passed the three laws that the federal government is challenging.

"The preliminary injunction of AB 450 is a major victory for private employers in California who are no longer prevented from cooperating with legitimate enforcement of our nation’s immigration laws," O'Malley said. "While we are disappointed that California’s other laws designed to protect criminal aliens were not yet halted, the Justice Department will continue to seek out and fight unjust policies that threaten public safety.”

'States rights stand strong'

A spokeswoman for California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said, "The right of states to determine how to provide public safety and general welfare to their people continues to stand strong.”

A collection of immigration rights groups known as the ICE Out of CA coalition, said, "As the Trump administration continues to expand its cruel and criminalizing deportation machine, today’s ruling represents, overall, a defeat for the President’s hate-filled agenda and escalating abuses of power."

"With our 'Sanctuary State' law fully in effect, police and sheriffs remain limited from acting as deportation agents, and we’ll continue to fight to protect due process for everyone. And with AB 103 [one of the challenged laws] also fully in effect, California can continue to shine a light on abuses in immigration jails."

The coalition said it disagreed with the judge's ruling that suspended enforcement of the workplace access issues. But it added, "We call upon all employers to exercise their right under federal law to deny [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] agents entry into private areas of the workplace unless they have a warrant."

Earlier this year, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions lashed out at California for getting in the way of immigration enforcement activities and protecting "wanted criminals."

Sessions also claimed state policies have made the job of immigration agents "more dangerous" by releasing "dangerous" felons back into communities.

Vicious and violent offenders

In May, President Donald Trump invited a group of local officials from California fighting the state's sanctuary policies to a White House roundtable on immigration and lashed out at the policies.

"California's law provides safe harbor to some of the most vicious and violent offenders on Earth, like MS-13 gang members putting innocent men, women and children at the mercy of these sadistic criminals," Trump remarked at the roundtable event held May 16.

In recent months, there's been a backlash over the sanctuary policies from several counties, including Orange, San Diego, Kern and Shasta, as well as cities up and down the state.

Some of the same local jurisdictions have filed so-called amicus or friend of the court briefs in support of the Trump administration's lawsuit against the state.

However, at least two dozen cities and counties that have filed briefs supporting the state's side, including Los Angeles County.