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Sessions blasts California for 'sanctuary' policies, says he will use his power to stop them

By: Matt Zapotosky, The Washington Post
March 7, 2018 Updated: March 7, 2018 at 3:00 pm
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Attorney general Jeff Sessions, shown in a February meeting in Washington. On Wednesday, he criticized California's stand on sanctuary cities. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Joshua Roberts

Speaking before a crowd of law enforcement officials in a state he had just accused of violating the Constitution, Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday excoriated California and some of its state and local leaders for passing laws and taking actions that he said obstruct immigration enforcement and put officers in danger.

In an unusually strident speech that emphasized the supremacy of the federal government by referencing Abraham Lincoln and secession, Sessions said California's actions "directly and adversely impact the work of our federal officers" and "undermine the duly-established immigration law in America."

He took particular aim at Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, a Democrat, for warning constituents last month about an impending raid by Immigration and Customs Enforcement - alleging her comments prevented authorities from making 800 arrests. And he said he planned to use the full might of the federal government to bring her state in line.

"California, absolutely, appears to me, is using every power it has - powers it doesn't have - to frustrate federal law enforcement," Sessions said. "So you can be sure I'm going to use every power I have to stop them."

The comments at the California Peace Officers Association's annual gathering in Sacramento come a day after Sessions' Justice Department sued the state of California, alleging that three recently passed laws that benefit undocumented immigrants are unconstitutional. The suit, which seeks to block the laws, is a remarkable escalation of the attorney general's crackdown on sanctuary jurisdictions, and it drew swift criticism from state leaders, who insisted their laws would pass legal muster.

Those inside the Sawyer Hotel clapped loudly when Sessions was finished speaking. But outside, local television showed protesters lining the streets. California state leaders, meanwhile, girded for battle - noting that when Sessions' Justice Department has come to court before to defend policies such as the travel ban or the wind down of the Deferred Action for Early Childhood Arrivals program, it has often lost.

In fiery remarks after Sessions' speech, California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat said, "The Trump administration is full of liars," and called on Sessions to apologize for "bringing the mendacity of Washington to California."

He called the Justice Department's lawsuit a "political stunt," and noted the irony of Sessions, who is from Alabama, talking about secession. He suggested the attorney general might be trying to get back into the good graces of President Donald Trump, who has publicly voiced displeasure about him.

"It really demeans the high office to which he has been appointed," Brown said, adding later that Sessions was "initiating a reign of terror."

Sessions' speech touched on themes familiar to those who have followed his career, both in the Senate and as attorney general: rising violent crime, respect for law enforcement and illegal immigration. He said the United States "must have a lawful system of immigration," but insisted he was not trying to "wall off America from all immigrants."

Sessions' remarks were notable for their aggressiveness. At one point, after referencing the "wide variety of political opinions out there on immigration" and the law already on the books, he remarked: "There is no nullification. There is no secession. Federal law is the supreme law of the land. I would invite any doubters to go to Gettysburg, or to the tombstones of John C. Calhoun and Abraham Lincoln. This matter has been settled."

The Justice Department's lawsuit takes aim at three California laws: Assembly Bill 450, which prohibits private employers from giving immigration officials access to workplaces or documents for enforcement without a court order; Assembly Bill 103, which created a state inspection system for immigration detention facilities; and Senate Bill 54, which limits what state and local law enforcement authorities can communicate about some suspects and which people they can transfer to federal custody.

Sessions took aim at each, noting that - outside of the context of immigration - they might be viewed differently.

"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 after polluters," Sessions said. "Would you pass a law to do that?"

To Schaaf in particular, whose warning he said disrupted an ICE raid, Sessions said: "How dare you. How dare you needlessly endanger the lives of our law enforcement officers to promote a radical open borders agenda."

Sessions and state attorneys general opposed to the Trump administration's agenda have frequently sparred in court over controversial policies, including those of so-called "sanctuary" jurisdictions.

Several places already have sued the administration over its attempt to keep federal grant money from them, and the early skirmishes have gone against the Justice Department. A federal judge in San Francisco blocked Trump's executive order on sanctuary jurisdictions, a federal judge in Chicago ruled Sessions had exceeded his authority in imposing new, immigration-related conditions on grants and a judge in Philadelphia declared the Justice Department could not withhold money from that city because it was in compliance with immigration law.

Sessions has threatened to subpoena 23 jurisdictions that officials suspect might not be complying with immigration law, and a senior Justice Department official said it is possible the department will sue places other than California. That state, though, has drawn the particular ire of the administration, and a senior Justice Department official said its laws stood out as being in violation of the Constitution.

California officials rejected that claim. State attorney general Xavier Becerra, a Democrat who talks proudly of his 28 lawsuits against the administration, said the Justice Department was mischaracterizing the laws it was challenging, which he said were "fully constitutional."

California State Senate President Kevin de León said early Wednesday: "If Jeff Sessions is suing California because we refused to help the Trump administration round up honest, hard-working families, then I say bring it. Based on the Justice Department's track record in court, I like our odds."

Sessions' decision to sue the state not only sparks an immediate legal and political battle between the administration and arguably the most anti-Trump state in the nation, but could have political repercussions in several statewide California races.

De León, who is term limited as State Senate president, is currently challenging Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., in a contest that sets up generational, ethnic and ideological contrasts. Both candidates failed to earn the formal endorsement of the California Democratic Party last month, but de León bested Feinstein in the raw vote tally of Democratic convention delegates.

De León was scheduled to be in Washington on Wednesday and Thursday for fundraisers and other political meetings, but canceled the trip when his office learned of Sessions' plans.

Feinstein said Wednesday in a statement that the Trump administration "continues to attack California in an attempt to score points with the president's political base. These attacks are unacceptable and will not be tolerated."

"California should not be punished for trying to shield immigrants from deportation and keep families together," Feinstein said.

The lawsuit and showdown with Sessions could also be a boon for Becerra, a former congressman who became the state's top law enforcement official last year when Kamala Harris became California's other U.S. senator. He has spent much of the last year filing legal challenges to the Trump administration's actions on immigration, health care and environmental policy, and this year faces his first-ever statewide election to win the attorney general job outright.

The Justice Department suing states is unusual, but not unheard of. The Justice Department did so several times during the Obama administration, including a suit against the state of Arizona over a controversial law there cracking down on illegal immigration.

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The Washington Post's Allen Young in Sacramento and Maria Sacchetti in Washington contributed to this report.

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