BATTLE FOR THE BORDER: Judge rejects bid to block California ‘sanctuary’ laws

SACRAMENTO, CA (Politico) — A federal judge on Thursday rejected the bulk of a Trump administration demand to block three California sanctuary laws, allowing the state to keep in place its most significant legislative measures aimed at countering President Donald Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigration.

Sacramento-based U.S. District Court Judge John Mendez rejected, for now, the Justice Department’s drive to halt a California law that limits the kinds of immigration-related information state and local law enforcement can share with federal officials. The judge also declined DOJ’s request to block another law guaranteeing California officials certain information about local and privately run jails that hold immigration detainees in the Golden State.

While the ruling is a setback for the Trump administration’s attempt to enforce immigration laws in states where leaders favor more liberal policies, Mendez did block parts of one of the disputed California laws, including provisions that banned private employers from voluntarily cooperating with immigration officials and from re-verifying the legal work status of employees.

Mendez, an appointee of President George W. Bush, took a narrow view of state and local governments’ obligations to allow their employees to assist federal immigration officials. He said California had broad authority to limit use of its resources for immigration enforcement.

“Refusing to help is not the same as impeding,” wrote Mendez. “Federal objectives will always be furthered if states offer to assist federal efforts. A state’s decision not to assist in those activities will always make the federal object more difficult to attain than it would be otherwise. Standing aside does not equate to standing in the way.”

Justice Department lawyers argued that a 1996 federal law prevents California from blocking disclosure of information helpful to immigration authorities, such as prisoners’ expected release dates and their home addresses. But Mendez said that law covers only records “strictly pertaining to immigration status” and not a broader set of data.

Mendez’s decision denied a preliminary injunction against the most significant provisions the Justice Department challenged in a suit filed with fanfare last March. The ruling doesn’t eliminate the possibility that the federal government could prevail in more aspects of the suit in the future, but it leaves the administration without much of the immediate relief it wanted.

A Justice Department spokesman had no immediate comment on the decision.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, whose office defended the laws, hailed the ruling.

“The right of states to determine how to provide public safety and general welfare to their people continues to stand strong,” Becerra said in a statement.

The author of the law limiting information-sharing with federal officials, California state Sen. Kevin De Léon, tied the judge’s decision to the outcry over Trump’s move to separate some immigrant parents from their children.

“Today, a federal judge made clear what I’ve known all along, that SB 54, the California Values Act is constitutional and does not conflict with federal law,” De Léon said. “California is under no obligation to assist Trump tear apart families. We cannot stop his mean-spirited immigration policies, but we don’t have to help him, and we won’t.”

Mendez said he hoped his ruling would be seen as a legal one, not a political one, and he said “piecemeal opinions” from judge will not resolve hot-button immigration debates.

“This Order hopefully will not be viewed through a political lens and this Court expresses no views on the soundness of the policies or statutes involved in this lawsuit. 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,” wrote the judge, who added that he ruled “without concern for any possible political consequences.”

The judge closed his opinion with a strong exhortation to Congress and the White House to enact legislation addressing the most contentious disputes relating to immigration policy.

“This Court joins the ever-growing chorus of Federal Judges in urging our elected officials to set aside the partisan and polarizing politics dominating the current immigration debate and work in a cooperative and bi-partisan fashion toward drafting and passing legislation that addresses this critical political issue,” Mendez wrote. “Our Nation deserves it. Our Constitution demands it.”

Politico’s Christopher Cadelago contributed to this report.

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