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Trump administration sues California over laws shielding immigrants

The Justice Department is suing California, alleging constitutional violations in that three state laws enacted this past year that limit cooperation with federal immigration officials to protect immigrants.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in California's eastern district, claims that three laws created over the last year in response to the Trump administration's immigration crackdown violate the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution. It asks a federal court to declare the three statutes invalid, and permanently block the state from enforcing them. 

This is the second legal salvo launched by Trump administration officials, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Thomas Homan, as part of a long-running battle of words over so-called "sanctuary" jurisdictions that began last January. 

The administration has suffered repeated losses in federal court when it comes to immigration policies, losing twice over the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, and over bans of immigrants from several different, largely Muslim-majority countries. 

In late November, a federal judge in California permanently blocked the administration from enforcing an executive order that would cut funding from cities that limit cooperation with immigration officials, ruling that the order was "unconstitutional on its face." 

However, Trump officials have gained a few wins as well, leaving the fate of California's three laws uncertain. 

Most notably, the lawsuit looks back to Arizona v. United States, a lawsuit launched by the Obama administration to stymie Arizona's own controversial crackdown on immigrants known as SB1070

Most of Arizona's provisions were curtailed by a 2012 Supreme Court decision.

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In the 18-page lawsuit, the Justice Department argued that California's provisions are "preempted by federal law and impermissibly discriminate against the United States." 

"The United States has undoubted, preeminent authority to regulate immigration matters. This authority derives from the United States Constitution and numerous acts of Congress," the lawsuit reads. "California has no authority to enforce laws that obstruct or otherwise conflict with, or discriminate against, federal immigration enforcement efforts." 

The lawsuit includes the state of California, as well as Gov. Jerry Brown and Attorney General Xavier Becerra. 

In the last year, California officials passed three laws intended to protect immigrants in the state, starting in June 2017. 

The first, the Immigration Worker Protection Act was enacted on Jan. 1, and prohibits private employers in California from voluntarily agreeing to allow immigration enforcement officials to enter "any nonpublic areas of a place of labor." 

The second, allows California officials to inspect and review the immigration enforcement actions by federal officials, including the review of federal documents. 

In the lawsuit, federal officials complained that the bill "imposes a new set of requirements specific to facilities housing immigration detainees" and argued that records should remain under the control of ICE and should only be disclosed under federal laws and regulations, including the Freedom of Information Act. This includes three facilities that are "dedicated exclusively to house immigration detainees." 

Becerra announced on Jan. 24 that he would inspect those facilities in late March. 

The third, the California Values Act, prohibits law enforcement from automatically transferring people to federal immigration officials, limits detentions for someone in custody beyond their release date just for immigration agents, and limits how immigration officials operate in what were once considered "sensitive locations" including schools, hospitals, libraries and courthouses. 

California's law requires U.S. officials to present a "judicial warrant or judicial probable cause determination" before local officials will hold an immigrant for DHS officials, a process that "conflicts with federal law" which allows ICE agents to use "detainer requests," or civil administrative warrants instead. 

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Federal officials also claimed that by limiting cooperation, the law required immigration agents to engage in "difficult and dangerous efforts" to re-arrest people who were released, "endangering immigration officers" and well as the immigrant, and bystanders. 

"California has no lawful interest in assisting removable aliens to evade federal law enforcement." 

Courthouses had become especially controversial after ICE agents repeatedly apprehended people when they appeared for court. 

All three bills went into effect on Jan. 1, 2018. 

In the lawsuit, federal officials complained that the laws "have the purpose and effect of making it more difficult for federal immigration officers to carry out their responsibilities in California."

"The Supremacy Clause does not allow California to obstruct the United States’ ability to enforce laws that Congress has enacted or to take actions entrusted to it by the Constitution. Accordingly, the provisions at issue here are invalid," federal lawyers said. 

In a statement, California's Gov. Brown called the lawsuit a "political stunt" and aped the president's language on Twitter. 

 "At a time of unprecedented political turmoil, Jeff Sessions has come to California to further divide and polarize America," Brown said. "Jeff, these political stunts may be the norm in Washington, but they don't work here. SAD!!!" 

Sessions will likely lay out the details on the lawsuit when he addresses the California Peace Officer Association in Sacramento on Wednesday, but according to parts of his prepared statement published by the Sacramento Bee on Tuesday, Sessions plans to attack California's laws. 

"The Department of Justice and the Trump administration are going to fight these unjust, unfair and unconstitutional policies that have been imposed on you. I believe that we are going to win." 

In her own statement, DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said that "California has chosen to purposefully contradict the will and responsibility of the Congress to protect our Homeland," and thanked Sessions for his efforts.  

TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions at the Mariposa Port of Entry in Nogales in April 2017.