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California leaders rebuke Sessions as 'going to war' over state immigration policy

Jazmine Ulloa and Liam Dillon, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- A day after he sued California over its laws to shield immigrants living in the state illegally, Attorney General Jeff Sessions arrived in Sacramento, drawing protests and sharp rebukes from state leaders for accusing the state of impeding federal immigration officials from doing their jobs.

Sessions, speaking at an annual law enforcement lobby day held by the California Peace Officers' Association, underscored recent upticks in violent crime and charged Democrats with advancing the political agendas of "radical extremists." Using sharp rhetoric, he criticized Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf for warning immigrant communities about recent Bay Area raids, and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom for praising her actions.

"So here's my message to Mayor Schaaf: How dare you?" he said. "Contrary to what you may hear from open-borders radicals, we are not asking California, Oakland or anyone else to actively, effectively enforce immigration laws."

California Democratic leaders and the state's top law enforcement officer responded with warring rhetoric of their own, describing Sessions' actions as unprecedented. In fiery tweets, speeches and at a news conference at the Capitol, the Democrats said the Justice Department lawsuit is based on lies and challenges California's sovereignty.

"This is basically going to war against the state of California," said Gov. Jerry Brown.

The governor called Sessions' actions a political stunt, aimed at distracting the public from guilty pleas made by President Donald Trump's advisers in special counsel Robert Mueller's ongoing investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

"Let's face it, the Trump White House is under siege," Brown said. "Obviously, the attorney general has found it hard just to be a normal attorney general. He's been caught up in the whirlwind of Trumpism ... (and is) initiating a reign of terror."

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, a Los Angeles Democrat and author of one of the laws targeted by the legal challenge, accused Sessions of having ideology based on "white supremacy and white nationalism."

The former Senate leader said he is directing former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., under contract to provide legal advice to the state Senate, to help formulate a response to submit in court. On a conference call with reporters, Holder said legal precedent makes clear that the federal government cannot insist that a state use its resources to enforce federal immigration law.

"From my perspective, the Trump administration's lawsuit is really a political and unconstitutional attack on the state of California's well-established rights under our system of government," Holder said.

Administration officials allege the laws, passed by the Legislature last year and signed by Brown, blatantly obstruct federal immigration law and thus violate the Constitution's supremacy clause, which gives federal law precedence over state enactments.

State Attorney General Xavier Becerra has pledged to defend the measures in court, saying they work in concert with federal laws. "Our teams work together to go after drug dealers, to combat gang violence, to take down sex-trafficking rings, and we have no intention of changing that," he said Wednesday.

In his speech to more than 100 police chiefs, sheriffs and other law enforcement officers, Sessions argued that the Trump administration did not reject immigration, but said the U.S. should not reward those who unlawfully enter the country with benefits, such as legal status, food stamps and work permits.

He argued the federal government sued California to invalidate and immediately freeze what he called unjust laws.

"We are going to fight these irrational, unfair and unconstitutional policies that have been imposed on you and our federal officers," Sessions said as he finished his speech, and some officers stood in ovation. "You can be certain about this: We have your back, and you have our thanks."

As the group welcomed Sessions with applause, a statewide coalition of immigrant rights groups gathered outside to protest his arrival.

The event is usually a time for law enforcement officers to mingle with lawmakers, lobby for legislation and receive guidance from leaders on law enforcement priorities across the state. But Sessions' appearance swept the attention away.

Police officers said the state's immigration laws had not impeded their jobs so far, but the constant battles between state and federal leaders were affecting their relationships with federal partners. Fairfield Police Chief Randy Fenn said the lawsuit raised concerns about whether law enforcement agencies would be caught in the middle of a larger immigration battle.

"We are waiting to see how this shakes out," Fenn said.

Neil Gallucci, second vice president of the state peace officers group, said Sessions' opinion was important to understand as the federal lawsuit had the potential to change California laws.

"Attorney General Sessions is the top law enforcement officer in the United States of America," Gallucci said. "It would be foolish for us not to listen to where we may be headed and to understand what all the issues are. That is what this forum is for."

Though the state government's foray into immigration issues has drawn criticism outside California's borders in recent months, it has broad support within the state. A January poll by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found 58 percent of likely voters wanted state and local immigration action. Among all adults, support rose to 65 percent of those surveyed.

Law enforcement officials have been divided on the issue. The most contested of the statues -- the so-called "sanctuary state" law -- limits state and local law enforcement agencies from using any resources to hold, question or share information about people with federal immigration agents, unless they had violent or serious criminal convictions.

For many officers across the state, that won't change much of their daily work. Some police and sheriff's agencies already have developed similar restrictions on working with immigration agents, either through their own policies or under local "sanctuary city" rules.

The California Police Chiefs Association moved its official position from opposed to neutral after final changes to the bill, but the California State Sheriffs Association remained opposed.

Outside Sessions' speech Wednesday, a few hundred gathered to protest. Right before the speech began, protesters spilled out onto a major street, blocking traffic, and then marched around the exterior of the building.

Maria Isabel Serrano, 46, from Imperial County, said the attorney general should focus on violent crimes, not immigration.

"This is the only place where we have a sanctuary," Serrano said in Spanish. "This lawsuit is uncalled for."

(Times staff writers John Myers and Seema Mehta contributed to this report.)

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