Judge rules against Trump, for California sanctuary laws—with one exception

A federal judge today ruled against the Trump administration’s attempt to immediately halt California’s so-called sanctuary laws—with one exception affecting employers.

Judge John Mendez, in U.S. District Court in Sacramento, denied a request by the federal Department of Justice for a preliminary injunction against California laws that limit cooperation with immigration enforcement officials.

The centerpiece of the three laws stands. It doesn’t literally make California a “sanctuary” for immigrants, but does place limits on the level of work state and local government officials can do to expedite ICE enforcement. A second law places limits on expansion of detention facilities in California, and requires inspection of those facilities by the state.

The judge did, however, grant the federal government’s request to block full enforcement by California of the third law, which said the state can fine employers for giving access to immigration agents without notifying employees first. Under the ruling, employers can still warn employees of impending ICE compliance checks, but will not face state fines if they allow federal agents to enter workplaces without a warrant. State Attorney General Xavier Becerra had announced in January that his office would go after employers who share information about workers in contradiction of the new law and they could face prosecution, including fines of up to $10,000. This ruling puts a damper on that effort.

Judge Mendez’s ruling seemed sympathetic to business owners caught between federal and state authorities. Owners in immigrant-heavy industries, such as hospitality and agriculture, say they’ve been caught between the federal escalation of anti-immigration efforts and the sanctuary laws; they haven’t known which to follow.

The Trump administration had sued California in March over all three laws that took effect Jan. 1. They’re intended to protect undocumented immigrants from being set on a path to deportation after interactions with local police, unless they have committed a serious or violent crime. The U.S. Department of Justice says the statutes are unconstitutional.

Becerra contends the laws do not conflict with the U.S. Constitution but, rather, act in concert with it. Not everyone in California agrees.

Dozens of local governments say the feds are right and have rebelled by passing resolutions against the sanctuary policy, signing onto the federal lawsuit or suing the state directly. The city council in the small Southern California city of Los Alamitos voted not to comply.

In today’s ruling for California, Judge Mendez said the Trump administration failed to confront California’s primary concern: that total state cooperation with federal immigration enforcement would make Californians not more safe, but less. “The historic police powers of the State include the suppression of violent crime and preservation of community safety,” the judge wrote, going on to add that the “ebb of tensions between communities and the police underscores the delicate nature of this relationship. Even perceived collaboration with immigration enforcement could upset the balance California aims to achieve.”

The overall ruling was a big victory for California, according to University of South California law professor Jean Reisz, who said even the small exception the judge granted to the feds was a sign that the California laws likely will survive the federal challenge.

Other recent rulings that went the federal government’s way, such as U.S. Supreme Court approval of the Trump administration’s travel ban, “were more about states interfering and imposing themselves in a federal arena,” Reisz said. Likewise, California’s bid to impose fines on business owners who want to honor federal agents’ requests to enter workplaces without a warrant was construed by Judge Mendez as state interference. But Reisz noted that’s not the case with California’s centerpiece sanctuary law—the one that has sparked so much controversy.

When state officials decline to provide a release date or a home address to immigration officials, she said, that isn’t “imposing” on federal law: “The distinction is: California is stepping aside, it’s not getting in ICE’s way. I mean, stepping aside is not helping—but is that interfering?”

Mendez cautioned that the debate is not over with this ruling.

“There is no place for politics in our judicial system, and this one opinion will neither define nor solve the complicated immigration issues currently facing our Nation,” he wrote. He added that he had reached his decision without concern for political consequences, a luxury the other two branches of government lack. “But if there is going to be a long-term solution to the problems our country faces with respect to immigration policy, it can only come from our legislative and executive branches. It cannot and will not come from piecemeal opinions issued by the judicial branch.”

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