Trump administration files lawsuit against California in row over sanctuary laws

California Gov. Jerry Brown denounced U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions for coming to the state to speak about a lawsuit targeting policies that limit co-operation with federal immigration authorities, saying Wednesday it was unprecedented for him to "act more like Fox News than a law enforcement officer."

U.S. Supreme Court previously reinforced feds' authority in enforcing immigration law in Ariz. case

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions addresses the California Peace Officers' Association at the 26th Annual Law Enforcement Legislative Day on Wednesday, where he took aim at California government officials, including Oakland's mayor. (Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press)

California Gov. Jerry Brown denounced U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions for coming to the state to speak about a lawsuit targeting policies that limit co-operation with federal immigration authorities, saying Wednesday it was unprecedented for him to "act more like Fox News than a law enforcement officer."

Shortly after Sessions's speech to law enforcement officials, the Democratic governor accused the attorney general of trying to appease President Donald Trump, saying the administration is "full of liars."

"What Jeff Sessions said is simply not true and I call upon him to apologize to the people of California for bringing the mendacity of Washington to California," Brown told reporters.

The Justice Department, in a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday in Sacramento, is challenging three California laws that bar police from asking people about their citizenship status or participating in federal immigration enforcement activities.

California Gov. Jerry Brown, seen Dec. 17, accused the Trump administration of lying in order to score points with its base. (Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images)

Sessions said several California state laws prevent U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers from making deportation arrests and singled out elected officials for their actions.

"Under the laws of California, nothing stops the federal government from coming to a jail," countered Brown. "The release records are public, and there's nothing that stops any sheriff who runs the jails to working with ICE."

Sessions earlier had particularly strong words for Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, who issued an unusual public warning last month about an immigration operation.

"How dare you?" he said of Schaaf at a California Peace Officers Association meeting in Sacramento. "How dare you needlessly endanger the lives of law enforcement just to promote your radical open borders agenda?

"It wasn't something I chose to do, but I can't sit by idly while the lawful authority of federal officers are being blocked by legislative acts and politicians," Sessions said, straying from his prepared remarks.

More than a dozen attendees in a room of about 200 people gave the attorney general a standing ovation.

Sessions, who has blamed sanctuary city policies for crime and gang violence, spoke Wednesday to groups representing police chiefs, sheriffs, district attorneys, narcotics investigators and the California Highway Patrol. Only the California State Sheriffs' Association actively opposed the so-called sanctuary law.

Dozens of demonstrators chanted "stand up, fight back" and "no justice, no peace" outside the hotel where the meeting was held and some blocked traffic on a major thoroughfare. A heavy police presence was on hand.

Laws to prevent workplace raids

The lawsuit is the latest salvo in an escalating feud between the Trump administration and California, which has resisted the president on issues from taxes to marijuana policy and defiantly refuses to help federal agents detain and deport immigrants. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has said it will increase its presence in California, and Sessions wants to cut off funding to jurisdictions that won't co-operate.

"I say: Bring it on," said California Senate president Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, a Los Angeles Democrat who wrote the so-called sanctuary state bill. Democratic Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon was among those suggesting that Sessions shouldn't come at all.

The lawsuit was filed as the Justice Department also reviews Schaaf's decision to warn of an immigration sweep in advance, which ICE said allowed hundreds of immigrants to elude detention. Schaaf said Tuesday that the city would "continue to inform all residents about their constitutional rights."

The California laws were passed in response to Trump's promises to sharply ramp up the deportation of people living in the U.S. illegally.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, centre, discusses California's growing homeless crisis at a news conference in Sacramento, Calif., on Feb. 21. Schaaf has been at odds with Sessions and federal immigration officials after warning last month about potential raids in Oakland. (Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press)

One prohibits employers from letting immigration agents enter work sites or view employee files without a subpoena or warrant, an effort to prevent workplace raids. Another stops local governments from contracting with for-profit companies and ICE to hold immigrants. Justice Department officials said that violates the Constitution's supremacy clause, which renders invalid state laws that conflict with federal ones.

The Supreme Court reinforced the federal government's primacy in enforcing immigration law when it blocked much of Arizona's tough 2010 immigration law on similar grounds. The high court found several key provisions undermined federal immigration law, though it upheld a provision requiring officers, while enforcing other laws, to question the immigration status of people suspected of being in the country illegally.

In this case, California "has chosen to purposefully contradict the will and responsibility of Congress to protect our homeland," Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in a statement.

Demonstrator Henry Gordon of Sacramento said he hopes Sessions gets the message that Californians will resist efforts to separate families and deport immigrants.

Xavier Becerra, the state attorney general who is up for election in November, said sanctuary policies increase public safety by promoting trust between immigrant communities and law enforcement, while allowing police resources to be used to fight other crimes.

"We're in the business of public safety, not deportation," he said.