SACRAMENTO — The debate over sanctuary policies heated up in court Wednesday as a judge challenged the Department of Justice to defend its lawsuit against California’s three new sanctuary laws — while asking state officials to explain why they need the laws in the first place.
In a hearing in the Eastern District Court, Judge John Mendez asked the DOJ to explain how exactly these laws — which aim to protect the rights of undocumented immigrants in detention facilities, in the workplace and in interactions with law enforcement — are disrupting federal law.
“You can’t mandate (federal) cooperation,” Mendez told DOJ attorneys at one point.
At times, though, Mendez — thorough and persistent with his questions — also called on the state to defend its reasoning for implementing each of these laws, at one point asking, “why do you need the law at all?”
DOJ attorneys asked Mendez to grant a preliminary injunction temporarily freezing the state’s sanctuary laws, alleging they’re an unconstitutional abuse of power. Meanwhile, the state Attorney General’s office has asked Mendez — a George W. Bush appointee — to dismiss the case.
The White House sued California in March claiming its laws interfere with the federal government’s power to enforce immigration law. The state argues it can’t be forced to act out immigration law and has vowed to protect its nearly three million undocumented immigrants.
Mendez warned attorneys the hearing would last all day and asked them to put away any formal oral arguments they had prepared, instead conducting a more casual question-and-answer session in which he encouraged attorneys to “jump in” with comments. He said there’s no time limit on Wednesday’s hearing because he wants to ensure that all his questions are asked.
The hearing, though unlikely to result in a same-day decision, marked the first time both parties argued before a judge in the case. Mendez started the hearing off with questions on AB 103, which gives state officials the authority to review the conditions of detention facilities that contract with ICE.
Christine Chuang, an attorney for the California Attorney General’s office, said the law ensures the welfare of people in the state.
But DOJ attorney Chad Readler said it interferes with the enforcement of federal immigration law because it gives access to state personnel who shouldn’t be in the detention facilities to begin with, where they could potentially question employees or access confidential documents. All this takes up federal time and resources, he said.
“I’m still trying to figure out how that in any way might impact the ability of immigration agencies to enforce the immigration law of the United States,” Mendez replied, adding that the law is meant to encourage transparency.
He had particular reservations about AB 450, which requires an employer to ask for proper court documents before allowing immigration agents to access the workplace or employee information — or face a fine.
The statute, he said, puts a burden on the government by making them jump through hoops to do their job, while also putting the employer “between a rock and a hard place.”
Deep Gulasekaram, a law professor at Santa Clara University, said it’s clear Mendez tried to drill down to determine the specific type of obstacles that the sanctuary laws create for the government.
“Legally speaking that’s quite important because that is the essence of (the DOJ’s) claim,” he said. “They have to show an actual conflict in terms of how it affects federal law.”
The hearing concluded late Wednesday afternoon with discussion of SB 54, the centerpiece of the state’s sanctuary laws. Readler said the Trump administration particularly opposes the state’s reluctance to share release dates with law enforcement of detainees who have just been released from jail and are wanted by ICE for deportation.
Mendez said the state shouldn’t be able to direct a law enforcement agency to stop doing something it was once allowed to do — in this case sharing inmate information with ICE — because it creates “serious problems” in the immigration system.
“The state does not completely take that away,” said Lee Sherman with the Attorney General’s office.
More than 200 demonstrators rallied in Sacramento Wednesday ahead of the hearing. Immigration activists and lawyers greatly outnumbered sanctuary opponents. Demonstrators on either side of the dispute stood inches apart exchanging words in front of the courthouse, at times pushing each other.
For Jade Hughes, 40, of Sacramento, immigration and the blending of cultures defines her young family. Hughes, an English immigrant, met her husband, Cesar, a Mexican immigrant, at a restaurant in New York City. The couple has three U.S.-born children.
“The idea of anyone calling us an “infestation” or ripping our children away from us or just making us feel less than human, it’s just wrong,” she said.
Sergio Rocha, 30, a state employee from Sacramento, said he doesn’t support some local law enforcement agencies — including the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department — cooperating with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“Our sheriff here is more than willing to cooperate with Trump in order to tear families apart,” he said. “It’s important to California as a state to stand up and say no.”
But Linda Martínez-Hanna,57, of Sacramento, came to protest the state’s sanctuary laws, and rejects claims that Trump supporters like herself are racist.
“I’m not a racist — no one here is,” said Martínez-Hanna, who grew up in San Jose and whose father immigrated legally from Mexico with a work visa in 1949. “But guess what? My blood is red, white and blue.”
Mendez said he’d try to make a decision as soon as possible and left attorneys with a warning: “don’t read too much into my questions.”
“I sometimes ask questions just to be devil’s advocate,” he said. “Its all about the law folks. That’s what the decision will reflect.”
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