Democratic lawmakers in California are moving swiftly to pass a package of legislation that would restrict state and local law enforcement, including school police and security departments, from using their own resources to aid federal authorities in immigration enforcement.
The brewing legal battle between the state and Republican President Donald Trump, who Wednesday took sweeping actions designed to construct a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and withhold federal funding to localities that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration authorities, could test the limits of California’s power amid questions over billions of dollars in funding.
The legislative package is moving four years after passage of the California “Trust Act,” which forbid state and local agencies from holding undocumented immigrants at the request of federal authorities. Immigration advocates say it would provide added cover to some local governments by standardizing often conflicting municipal policies and transforming California into a de facto “sanctuary state.”
“The state is saying, ‘I don’t want to be complicit with federal enforcement authority. We are doing our job. Let us do our job and look after state matters,’” said Grisel Ruiz, staff attorney at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center.
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There are up to 2.6 million undocumented immigrants in California, according to Center for Migration Studies estimations from 2014. The three largest countries of origin are Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala.
Along with restricting local action on immigration enforcement, Senate Bill 54, by Democratic Senate leader Kevin de León, would require schools, hospitals and courthouses around the state to adopt similar policies. It also would require state agencies to update their confidentiality policies so information on individuals’ immigration status is not shared for enforcement purposes.
Republicans criticized the approaches by majority Democrats as needlessly confrontational and ultimately unhelpful to the state’s interests under a Trump administration. Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Yuba City, said the federal government’s focus on “criminal illegal aliens” is “just common sense.”
“To fight these policies and put our federal funding at risk, that’s dangerous,” he said.
His colleague, Assemblyman Travis Allen, R-Huntington Beach, is carrying legislation to withhold state funds to sanctuary cities and prevent state money from being used to defend illegal immigrants considered to be criminals.
Other critics focused on the tone of the approach by the state’s Democratic leaders.
“This kind of legislation and rhetoric from sanctuary cities and politicians in Sacramento creates the kind of environment wherein you are going to see clashes between immigration law enforcement and the advocates,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.
De León, of Los Angeles, said Wednesday that he was collaborating with former U.S Attorney General Eric Holder and state Attorney General Xavier Becerra to examine ways to oppose Trump’s orders.
“It’s not the job of our local and county and state law enforcement to turn the cogs of President Trump’s deportation machine,” de León said. “He cannot force us and we will not hesitate to fight him in Congress and settle the matter in court.”
Other leaders, from Gov. Jerry Brown to mayors, indicated they would fight.
Brown pledged in his State of the State address this week to defend everybody who has come to the state “for a better life and has contributed to the well-being of our state.”
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“I recognize that under the Constitution, federal law is supreme and that Washington determines immigration policy,” Brown said. “But as a state we can and have had a role to play. California has enacted several protective measures for the undocumented: the Trust Act, lawful driver’s licenses, basic employment rights and nondiscriminatory access to higher education.
“We may be called upon to defend those laws and defend them we will.”
In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti, citing the 10th Amendment, said he doubted the federal government could cease funding to his city, while Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg added that he would “join, if not lead, any effort to fight (the sanctuary city threat) with litigation.”
San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, delivering his annual State of the City address Thursday, declared that “we are a sanctuary city now, tomorrow, forever.”
“If and when the federal cuts will come,” Lee said, “We’ll be united behind our promises and our values.”
U.S. Supreme Court decisions appear to favor the state’s resistance, said Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Irvine School of Law. The court has ruled that Congress cannot force state and local governments to enforce federal laws, he said, and it can’t put strings on federal grants that are “unduly coercive.”
“I think it would be challenged in courts and I think (their attempt) would be struck down by the courts,” he said.
Other legislation could throw a wrench into some deportation efforts and assist undocumented immigrants.
Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, is proposing Senate Bill 31 to prevent the creation of Muslim registries by banning state and local officials from giving the federal government information on a person’s religious affiliation when it’s sought to compile a database for law enforcement or immigration purposes. It also contains previsions similar to those in de León’s legislation.
Sen. Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, is carrying Senate Bill 6 to – among other things – enlist the state in legal assistance to those facing deportation.
Apolonio Morales, political director at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, said state resources should not be used to – in his words – destroy the trust between local law enforcement and the community. He pointed to the potential for lost tax dollars and productivity for California.
“We hurt ourselves by deporting people in a massive way, and the president is trying to hurt us by doing that,” said Morales, predicting legal challenges. “This is humanitarian, but (it’s) also economic. We have a lot to lose for those investments we made for various years.”
Alexei Koseff contributed to this report.