Department of Justice Takes Issue with California “Sanctuary City” Laws

On March 6, 2018, the Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a complaint against the State of California in the Eastern District of California (United States of America v. California) over three new “Sanctuary City” laws signed by Governor Jerry Brown that took effect at the start of this year that limit the California police departments to cooperate, share information with, and transfer detained undocumented individuals to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The DOJ’s Complaint relies on the broad authority of the Executive Branch to enforce immigration laws, as well as the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution that establishes, as the Complaint cites, “a state enactment is invalid if it ‘stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress,’ Hines v. Davidowitz, 312 U.S. 52, 67 (1941), or if it ‘discriminate[s] against the United States or those with whom it deals,” South Carolina v. Baker, 485 U.S. 505, 523 (1988).’” The DOJ also cites that California does not generally apply similar laws that limit cooperation with other federal agencies, and thus the DOJ claims that these Sanctuary City laws are discriminatory toward the agencies that enforce compliance with federal immigration laws.

In its Complaint, the DOJ first cites California’s “Immigrant Worker Protection Act,” Assembly Bill 450 (AB 450), which it claims places restrictions on cooperation with workplace immigration enforcement. The bill regulates how private employers in California must respond to federal efforts to ensure compliance with federal immigration laws through investigations in places of employment. Workplaces cannot voluntarily consent to immigration enforcement inspections unless they are prompted by a court order to do so, and workplaces are required to give notice to their employees within 72 hours before ICE conducts an inspection. The DOJ claims that “[these provisions, interfer[e] with the enforcement of the INA and IRCA’s prohibition on working without authorization.” The DOJ further states that these laws violate the Supremacy Clause creating obstacles for U.S. immigration agencies to properly enforce immigration laws.

Second, the Complaint takes issue with Assembly Bill 103 (AB 103), which requires the California Attorney General “to engage in reviews of county, local, or private locked detention facilities in which noncitizens are being housed or detained for purposes of civil immigration proceedings in California.” The DOJ claims that California’s “Inspection and Review of Immigration Detention Facilities” “statute thus commands an improper, significant intrusion into federal enforcement of the immigration laws,” and that “California has no lawful interest in investigating federal law enforcement efforts.” The DOJ claims that this too violates the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution by “constituting an obstacle to the United States’ enforcement of the immigration laws and discriminating against the United States.”

Third, and finally, the DOJ takes up an issue with the California Values Act, Senate Bill 54 (SB 54), which places restrictions on California’s state and local cooperation with federal officials on issues pertaining to immigration. The bill, in general with a few exceptions, prevents state and local authorities from “[p]roviding information regarding a person’s release date or responding to requests for notification by providing release dates or other information.” The DOJ claims that this bill’s “limited subset of criminal violations does not match federal law” that governs what crimes the federal government can use as the basis for removing an alien from the U.S. The DOJ further claims that “[t]hese provisions violate the Supremacy Clause by, among other things, constituting an obstacle to the United States’ enforcement of the immigration laws and discriminating against federal immigration enforcement.”

The Complaint, taken with Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recent comments at the California Peace Officers’ Association, a law enforcement union, documents oppositions to recent moves certain states, including California, and also New York and Illinois, have taken to protecting immigrant and undocumented individuals from inspection by the federal government. Congress historically has vested broad power in the Executive Branch and its agencies to enforce legislation that protects the U.S. borders and allows them to govern the entry of, inspect the presence, status of, and remove any foreign national pursuant to the provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act and the Immigration Reform Control Act, among other immigration legislation. As this case moves forward, it could have large implications for both immigration as well as federalism policy as to whether states can establish laws that place restrictions on the way federal agencies can enforce federal legislation with respect to immigration matters within a state’s borders.