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A day after the Trump administration sued California over its new “sanctuary” laws, state officials pushed back hard, with Gov. Jerry Brown calling the move tantamount to “war.”

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the lawsuit, which he filed late Tuesday, at a police event near the Capitol in Sacramento on Wednesday. He said California leaders were scoring political points on the backs of law enforcement with immigration policies that hinder federal agents’ ability to enforce U.S. law.

“We’re simply asking the state and other sanctuary jurisdictions to stop actively obstructing federal law enforcement,” Sessions said as hundreds of protesters shouted outside. “Stop treating immigration agents differently from everybody else for the purpose of eviscerating border and immigration laws, and advancing an open-borders philosophy shared by only a few, the most radical extremists.”

Sessions accused local and state elected officials, including Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf and state Attorney General Xavier Becerra, of promoting an extreme agenda to frustrate federal agents. Becerra, a Brown appointee, is running for election this year, as is Schaaf.

At a joint press conference with Becerra after Sessions’ announcement, Brown said he does not believe in “open borders.” The laws being challenged in the suit were carefully crafted, he said, to balance the state’s right to manage public safety with federal authority to oversee immigration. He termed Sessions’ appearance a stunt.

“This is completely unprecedented, for the chief of law enforcement in the United States to come out here and engage in a political stunt, (and) make wild accusations, many of which are based on outright lies,” Brown said—unusually strong language for a governor who has largely been cautious in his criticism of the Trump administration.

“This is basically going to war against the state of California, the engine of the American economy. It’s not wise; it’s not right; and it will not stand,” Brown said.

Sessions’ visit is the latest political salvo between the Trump administration and California, whose Legislature has favored immigrant-friendly policies. Candidates for statewide office have been jockeying to position themselves as the best representative of the “resistance state.” Becerra has sued the administration more than two dozen times on a range of issues, including the president’s travel ban and ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allowed those brought to the country illegally as minors to remain here on a temporary basis.

In his 20-minute speech, Sessions said Schaaf, who recently tipped off the public about an imminent immigration raid, “has been actively seeking to help illegal aliens avoid apprehension by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement).” That has made the job of immigration agents more dangerous, he said—as outside protesters outside chanted, “Immigrants stay; Sessions go!”

“How dare you needlessly endanger the lives of our law enforcement officers to promote a radical open-border agenda,” said Sessions, who noted that the United States annually admits 1.1 million immigrants lawfully as permanent residents.

Within hours, Schaaf posted on Twitter that Oakland’s violent-crime rates have declined in the past five years, answering Sessions’ claim that crime generally is on the rise.

The U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit asks a federal court to strike down three state laws that, among other restrictions, require employers to keep information about their employees private without a court order; mandate inspections of immigration detention facilities; and bar local law enforcers from questioning people about their immigration status during routine interactions. The most contentious law does allow state officials to cooperate with federal agents when deportation is required for those who have committed any of 800 serious crimes.

Washington, D.C., will have to show that the state’s new laws infringe on its ability to enforce immigration rules, which may be hard to do, said Kevin R. Johnson, dean of the law school at the University of California, Davis.

“Ultimately, I think the state is likely to win most, if not all, of the lawsuit,” Johnson said.

Sessions said the sanctuary laws were designed to frustrate federal authorities. “Just imagine if a state passed a law forbidding employers from cooperating with OSHA in ensuring workplace safety, or the Environmental Protection Agency for looking out for polluters. Would you pass a law to do that?”

Sessions singled out Becerra, California’s top prosecutor, for threatening to fine business owners up to $10,000 if they cooperate with ICE agents. Becerra, who delivered a private address to the police group Wednesday, said at the press conference that “California has exercised its rights to define the circumstance where state and local law enforcement may participate in immigration enforcement.

“California is in the business of public safety. We’re not in the business of deportations,” he added, repeating statements he made Tuesday evening in the wake of the federal government’s filing. “I look forward to making these arguments in court.”

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat who is running for governor, had praised Schaaf for her warning, a move Sessions said was “an embarrassment to the proud state of California.”

In a Facebook post, Newsom responded: “Jeff Sessions called me an ‘embarrassment’ today. Coming from him, I take that as a compliment. But words don't mean much when you and your family's livelihoods are on the line.”

Some other candidates for statewide office were quick to offer their views on the lawsuit. State Senate leader Kevin De León, who is challenging Dianne Feinstein for her U.S. Senate seat and wrote one of the laws at issue, told reporters the suit is retribution against a state that resoundingly rejected Trump on Election Day.

“From Day 1, California has been in the crosshairs of this president,” he said. “We are on solid constitutional legal ground, so we welcome this lawsuit.”

Labor unions and immigration-rights organizations, meanwhile, decried Sessions’ announcement. The Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights said Washington was sowing “deception and fear mongering” to push an anti-immigrant agenda.

CALmatters reporters Laurel Rosenhall and Elizabeth Aguilera contributed to this report. CALmatters.org is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

Growing tension between California and the federal government over immigration has business owners in the crosshairs—worried about the potential effect on their enterprises, and unsure which laws they should follow.

Those in immigrant-dependent industries, such as hospitality and agriculture, say conflicting messages from the state, with its new laws to protect undocumented residents, and the federal government, which is cracking down on people in the U.S. illegally, put them in an especially tough spot.

“It’s a bit scary to be caught in the middle of a stand-off between the feds and local law enforcement,” said Sharokina Shams, spokeswoman for the California Restaurant Association.

On Jan. 2, the interim director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement said California should “hold on tight,” because he planned to send in a flood of agents and conduct more actions to counter the state’s new “sanctuary” law. That law, which took effect Jan. 1, limits local and state law enforcement agencies’ cooperation with federal authorities.

ICE also recently raided nearly 100 7-Eleven franchises across the country and arrested 21 people. If such raids happened in California, the store owners would be required under a separate law to request warrants and subpoenas.

That law, called the Immigrant Worker Protection Act, also went into effect Jan. 1. It requires that employers admit immigration officials to a worksite only if the agents have a warrant; keep workers’ confidential information private in the absence of a subpoena; and notify their workers before a federal audit of employee records takes place.

State Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced on Jan. 18 that his office would go after employers who share information about workers in contradiction of the new law. Employers could face prosecution, including fines of up to $10,000.

“We want to protect people’s rights to privacy and protect their ability to go about their business, going to work and feeding their kids,” said Becerra, an appointee (who replaced Kamala Harris when she was elected to the U.S. Senate) running for election to the office this year.

He said his announcement was prompted by rumors in Northern California that immigration agents intend to conduct workplace raids.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement says employers in California are expected to comply with federal regulations, as they have in the past, when asked to open their records for review.

The Immigrant Worker Protection Act “reflects yet another effort by the State of California to interfere with federal immigration enforcement authorities,” said Lori Haley, spokeswoman for ICE, via email. “Federal law established by the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 requires employers to verify the identity and work eligibility of all individuals they hire.”

Such audits protect jobs for citizens and others who are in the country legally and help battle worker exploitation, child labor and other illegal practices, Haley said.

California business owners shouldn’t be put at odds with the federal government, said GOP Assemblyman Travis Allen, who represents Huntington Beach.

“Business owners should always feel safe to cooperate with federal authorities without fear of persecution by California’s rogue attorney general,” said Allen, who is running for governor. “Business owners should never be used as pawns in the California Democrats’ ongoing war with the White House.”

He called the new law unconstitutional and likened Becerra’s threat to the Mafia silencing witnesses. The Constitution has “laid out clearly that immigration is federal, not state jurisdiction,” Allen said. “Federal law trumps state law, and Xavier Becerra knows this.”

The California Farm Bureau Federation, which represents farmers, has been reaching out to its 27,000 members to educate them about the new employer law. But officials there say they may not be able to reach everyone and worry that some may get caught unaware.

“It was a little disconcerting that the attorney general felt compelled to make a public statement to the effect that ‘we are going to fine anybody that we think might have violated the law at the max penalty’ when people make mistakes,” said Bryan Little, director of employment policy for the federation. “It would have been more helpful for the attorney general to be more informative.”

Typically, Little said, when immigration authorities decide to do an employment inspection, an employer receives a letter stating that the agency wants to audit its records, how those records should be provided and whether agents plan to show up at the worksite. That’s different from an enforcement action, when agents show up without warning to look for someone specific or to question all employees about their legal status—the kind of operation that does not happen very often.

Regardless, said Little, California law adds a layer of complications.

“Our business owners, operators and employers are caught in the middle” between ICE’s right to enforce federal law and the state’s limited-cooperation directive, he said. “It’s unfortunate.”

Restaurateur Patricia Perez, co-owner of Pho Show restaurants in Culver City and Redondo Beach, feels the pressure.

“Being in the hospitality industry, the whole social and political climate is worrisome,” she said. “Even before this, there is a lot to comply with. I don’t know what we would do.”

“The small business owner is the loser in this,” said Perez, who is also on the board of the Los Angeles Chapter of the California Restaurant Association.

Keeping up with new laws and regulations is hard enough, said Perez. Anytime a government agency shows up at a business for audits or information, employers and workers are nervous or even intimidated, and the new employment law doesn’t help, she said.

“It’s not an issue of transparency. Once a government agency asks for anything, it’s a feeling of not having a choice,” she said. “Business owners don’t always know their rights or what to do except to comply.”

California could be contradicting itself with the new employer law, according to Jonathan Turley, professor of public-interest law at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. The state weighed in on a 2012 case involving an Arizona law that required police to cooperate with immigration agents, Turley noted in a review of California’s new employer law. Kamala Harris, who was then California’s attorney general, signed a brief arguing that Arizona’s law improperly interfered with federal jurisdiction. Today, California is putting business owners in the direct path of the federal government, Turley argues, and its law could be challenged based on its own position that states should not impede federal authority.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Local Issues

One of the most controversial issues in Sacramento this year has been what is widely referred to as the “sanctuary state” law, which will take effect Jan. 1.

It is intended to protect law-abiding immigrants from being set on a path toward deportation after interactions with local police. But in immigrant communities and elsewhere, there is confusion about how the law will work—and exactly what protection it provides.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed the measure, named the California Values Act, into law after negotiations made it more palatable to law enforcers, who had protested it initially.

Why do people call it the “sanctuary state” law when the senator who wrote it says the phrase is a misnomer?

The author, state Senate leader Kevin de Léon, a Los Angeles Democrat, and others say the label is confusing, because the term “sanctuary” has become political—a flashpoint in the immigration debate.

The phrase originated with people who took sanctuary in churches. Some undocumented immigrants continue to do so, and so far, immigration officials have not gone to places of worship to arrest them. However, just being in California does not mean immigrants have blanket protection from federal authorities. The state law sets up guidelines for California law enforcement agencies’ interactions with federal immigration authorities. Undocumented immigrants may still face deportation if they have committed crimes or are swept up in raids by federal agents at workplaces, in neighborhoods or other venues, or if they are arrested individually.

The Values Act has been called a tool for public safety, put in place to ensure that immigrants continue to feel safe cooperating with local police as reporters of crimes and witnesses in court. Some police officials, including the chief of police in Los Angeles, endorsed the law for this reason.

What does the new law actually do?

The measure erects a barrier between state/local law enforcement, and federal immigration agencies. It doesn’t completely prohibit cooperation or the transfer of certain felons to federal custody; it creates a framework for when state agencies may cooperate with federal agencies. Previously, state and local authorities could use their discretion in many circumstances.

For people convicted of certain crimes—as many as 800, identified in a 2013 law called the Trust Act—there is little protection. Those infractions range from violent crimes and other serious offenses to felony drunk driving. State and local police agencies will still be allowed to let federal immigration authorities know when individuals are to be released, and to hand them over to those agents. However, individuals cannot be held beyond their release dates even if they have committed serious crimes.

The law also allows state corrections officials to continue to work with federal immigration agencies regarding those who are incarcerated and who face deportation after serving their sentences. They will continue to communicate with federal authorities about who is in prison and their expected release dates, and will hand those individuals over to federal agents upon release.

But the new law prohibits new or expanded contracts between the federal government and local facilities to be used as detention centers. Existing contracts are allowed to continue. The law also designates all courts, schools, libraries and hospitals as safe zones—immune to immigration enforcement as long as federal law does not require arrests there.

Police and sheriff’s deputies will not be allowed to act as immigration authorities; inquire about a person’s immigration status; detain someone based only on a federal hold request; participate in arrests based on immigration status; assist immigration authorities in arrests; or transfer people to federal custody without a warrant or certain other criteria.

Does the Values Act mean immigration agents can’t deport people in California?

No. No one can claim that living in California makes them exempt from deportation. Federal authorities can conduct raids, arrest suspected undocumented immigrants and do other work separately from state and local law enforcement. In addition, they can continue to communicate with local agencies about arrestees who have committed certain crimes, and they will be able to take custody of those individuals from local lockups when they are released. Agencies, however, will not honor “hold requests” from federal immigration agencies that previously could last up to 48 hours.

Does it mean undocumented immigrants won’t be deported if they commit violent crimes?

No. Immigrants—those here both legally and illegally—are not safe from deportation under the new law. Undocumented immigrants who are convicted of certain crimes will continue to be reported to federal immigration officials for deportation. The list of relevant crimes was not included when the Values Act was originally proposed. However, Gov. Jerry Brown negotiated with de León to ensure that those who commit serious crimes—including homicide, sexual assault and theft—will not be allowed to stay, while those arrested for a minor offense will not be held for deportation.  

What will happen if a county or city does not follow the new law and allows its authorities to cooperate with immigration agents?

Local agencies that do not follow the new law could face lawsuits by advocacy groups or others for failing to uphold it, or for constitutional claims such as wrongful detention. They could also face action from the state attorney general. Some law-enforcement groups that had criticized the measure dropped their opposition when the list of excluded crimes in the new law was increased from 60 to 800.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Local Issues