SACRAMENTO — U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions dramatically escalated the Trump administration’s war with California on Wednesday, suing over its so-called sanctuary state law and clashing with Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown in a fiery exchange of words.
Sessions was defiant as he spoke to local law enforcement officials about the lawsuit, citing a series of California laws that he says are unconstitutional and violate common sense.
“I can’t sit by idly while the lawful authority of federal officers are being blocked by legislative acts and politicians,” he said, straying from his prepared remarks.
Brown didn’t hold back in his response, calling Sessions a liar and saying it was unprecedented for the attorney general to “act more like Fox News than a law enforcement officer.” He accused Sessions of “going to war” with California to appease President Donald Trump.
“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,” the governor told reporters.
The lawsuit is the latest salvo in an escalating feud between the Trump administration and California, which has resisted the president on issues from marijuana policy to climate change 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 cooperate.
In August, Stockton was one of four cities nationally threatened with the denial of federal crime-fighting resources by the Trump administration because of its policy toward immigrants. The federal government said it wanted local police to step up efforts to help detain and deport people living in the country illegally as well as give federal immigration authorities access to jails and provide advance notice before releasing someone in custody who is wanted on immigration violations.
Stockton Police Chief Eric Jones said Wednesday that his department’s policy is unchanged from what it was when Trump was sworn in 14 months ago.
That policy says, “Sworn personnel of the Stockton Police Department shall not stop, question, detain, arrest or place ‘an immigration hold’ on any person solely on the ground that he or she may be a deportable alien.”
Last summer, Jones said, “We do realize we have to work with all of our federal partners (including) the Department of Homeland Security with the shared mission of reducing violent crime in our community. ... We will not become immigration enforcement officers, that’s the important part.”
San Joaquin County Sheriff Steve Moore was part of a group of California sheriffs who met with Sessions on Wednesday.
The request from Moore and the others who attended the meeting was for the federal government not to punish California agencies that are required to follow state laws.
Deputy Dave Konecny, a spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office, said the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office’s stand on the matter is aligned with that of the California State Sheriffs’ Association.
In a statement, CSSA President Bill Brown said, in part, “We are reviewing the litigation and will be watching it closely. Clarity in the law is vital, and we look forward to the resolution of potential conflicts between California and federal law. Sheriffs are caught in the middle of this challenging issue.”
Brown noted that his organization opposed the 2017 legislation that made California a sanctuary state.
“While we appreciate the efforts Governor (Jerry) Brown took to address many of our concerns, the bill was enacted still containing significant liabilities,” the CSSA president said.
The CSSA statement said its greatest concern is “the release of wanted, undocumented criminals from our jails including known gang members, repeat drunk drivers, persons who assault peace officers, serial thieves, animal abusers, and other serious offenders.”
Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs also weighed in with a statement posted on Facebook: “Attorney General Jeff Sessions is either unaware or unconcerned about the damage and rift that is created when you attack our immigrant community,” Tubbs wrote Wednesday. “In Stockton, our public safety officials have spent years developing a trusting relationship with our immigrant community, in hopes that everyone in our city feels safe reporting criminal activity. Actions taken by this administration will only weaken our efforts, at the local level, to keep our streets safe.”
Gov. Brown and state Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who has sued the Trump administration numerous times, held a news conference Wednesday just blocks from where Sessions spoke at a hotel, but they never interacted.
Sessions also used his speech to sharply criticize Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf for warning the public about an unannounced raid by federal deportation officers recently in California. Sessions said it allowed hundreds of “wanted criminals” to avoid arrest.
“How dare you?” Sessions 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?”
Schaaf later echoed the refrain to slam Sessions for tearing apart families and distorting the reality of declining violent crime in a “sanctuary city” like Oakland.
“How dare you vilify members of our community by trying to frighten the American public into believing that all undocumented residents are dangerous criminals?” she told reporters.
Sessions received a polite if not warm reception from law enforcement officials, even when he told them his goal was to make their jobs safer. They applauded politely as he was introduced and after his speech, and more than a dozen gave a standing ovation at the end in a room of about 200 officials.
But many sat expressionless, some listening with arms crossed or chins on their folded hands, and his 25-minute speech was never interrupted by applause or protest.
Outside, dozens of demonstrators chanted “stand up, fight back” and “no justice, no peace” and some blocked traffic on a major thoroughfare. There was a heavy police presence but no arrests.
“This is a reminder that California does not see his federal policies,” said Steven Lynn, 33, a Sacramento graduate student. “We are a state of immigrants.”
Brown speculated that Sessions’ dig on California may be an attempt to ease an openly rocky relationship with the president, saying, “Maybe he’s trying to keep his job because the president is not too happy with him.”