Editor’s Note: Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today board of contributors. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
“We have a problem.” That is what Attorney General Jeff Sessions told a gathering of law enforcement officers in California on Wednesday, in announcing that the Trump administration was suing the state over its so-called sanctuary laws. Federal immigration law, Sessions emphasized, is the supreme law of the land. “But California, we have a problem,” he said. “A series of actions and events have occurred here that directly and adversely impact the work of our federal officers.”
There is a problem here – only it is not the one that Sessions thinks it is. The problem is that the Trump administration is escalating its bullying of California and other states in a cynical, destructive way. Sessions’ lawsuit against California is built on myths and deceptions.
The Trump administration is fighting California because the state passed three laws that the feds don’t like. One limits state and local agencies’ ability to share information about criminals or suspects with federal immigration officers, unless they have been convicted of a serious crime. Another bars local businesses from allowing Immigration and Customs Enforcement to examine employee records without a court order or a subpoena. The third gives California the right to inspect immigration detention centers within the states.
Sessions spoke as though California were brazenly defying federal law. “There is no nullification, there is no secession,” he said. “Federal law is the supreme law of the land.” No one disputes that. In fact, in US v. Arizona (2012), the lawsuit over Arizona’s infamous “papers, please” law, the Supreme Court ruled that immigration enforcement was the jurisdiction of the federal government, not the states.
California’s laws recognize and adhere to this principle. California lawmakers have basically told the feds, you do your job (immigration enforcement) and we’ll do ours (deciding what’s best for our communities). Contrary to the misleading “sanctuary” label, California’s roughly 2.5 million undocumented immigrants – the largest such population in the country – are not free from arrest, detention or deportation. In January, ICE raided several California 7-11 franchises in search of undocumented workers. A February immigration sweep in Northern California resulted in 150 arrests. So the idea that “sanctuary” cities or states are a haven for undocumented immigrants is a myth.
Let’s take a quick review of the California laws at issue, to understand the public policy reasoning behind them. The California Values Act (SB 54) prohibits local law enforcement from acting as immigration agents, by asking people their immigration status during routine encounters, or from alerting ICE every time an undocumented person who poses no danger is released from their custody.
The rationale for this is based on public trust; California lawmakers are concerned that if people fear all encounters with law enforcement, they will stop reporting crimes and serving as witnesses; they will be fearful of helping their communities in this way. Contrary to what Sessions asserts, this law does not stop federal immigration agents from doing their jobs; it just means that local law enforcement officials, who are not trained in the nuances of immigration law, will not get involved in these cases – the key exception being when a person has a record of violent crimes.
California’s law forbidding employers from giving ICE access to their records and their workplaces without a warrant is to prevent exploitation of workers – that is, to keep employers from using the threat of exposure in order to pay undocumented workers less or mistreat them – as well as to prevent the possible racial profiling of Latinos.
And the law providing for oversight of detention centers is certainly reasonable. Across the country, immigration detention facilities have been accused of abuses and poor conditions. Why wouldn’t the state take an interest in having these facilities, many of which are in private hands, run properly?
These immigration provisions, and the pros and cons surrounding them, may seem a bit complicated. Sessions’ announcement yesterday is not: it amounts to a government-sanctioned publicity stunt.
Going after “liberal California” over the people Trump likes to call “illegals” is nothing but red meat to Trump’s dwindling base. No wonder the editorial board of the Sacramento Bee called the lawsuit “dishonest” and an “overreaction to a non-problem.” The suit goes against traditional conservative ideas, which oppose an overreaching federal government. Consider that, in the unlikely event that California’s laws were struck down, the state’s taxpayers would be stuck paying for local law enforcement officials to assume the federal government’s responsibilities.
At best, Jeff Sessions’ speech in California was clumsy pandering to the base. At worst, it seeks to further the Trump administration’s dangerous, false narrative that undocumented immigrants are a threat to our society. Either way, Sessions’ lawsuit offers no solutions on immigration, only more divisive political posturing.