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Explaining The Trump Versus California Immigration Lawsuit

Rich Pedroncelli / AP Photo

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions addresses the California Peace Officers' Association 26th Annual Law Enforcement Legislative Day, 7, 2018, in Sacramento, Calif.

Rich Pedroncelli / AP Photo

The federal lawsuit against California for restricting cooperation with federal immigration agents is the latest in a back-and-forth over so-called “sanctuary” policies. It also goes back to the first days of the Trump administration — and even earlier.

Capital Public Radio’s Ben Bradford joined All Things Considered anchor Randol White to explain.

White: Ben, how does today's lawsuit fit into the larger debate about sanctuary cities?

Bradford: So, this is a justice department lawsuit that challenges three new California laws that were spurred last year by the election of President Trump, after a campaign that focused heavily on undocumented immigrants.

And you’ll remember that Trump also signed an executive order — one of his first things last year — that could have potentially removed all grant funding from so-called sanctuary cities. A judge struck that down as too broad, and then the justice department tried a more narrow attempt to remove more grants. California’s been suing over that. So, you have courts already looking at key components of today’s suit

When you say key components — there's a question about federal law that all of these cases hinge on — tell us about that.

All parties agree that the federal government is in charge of immigration enforcement. The California laws at issue in the new lawsuit direct local and state law enforcement, as well as businesses, not to cooperate with federal immigration agents in certain circumstances. So, businesses aren't supposed to share immigration statuses of employees or allow agents into back rooms without a warrant. Police and sheriffs aren't supposed to respond to information requests in most cases unless it's about a violent felon.

The federal case relies heavily on a case that Arizona lost in 2012 when it tried to tighten immigration laws. The state tried to require local police to arrest undocumented immigrants, and the Supreme Court said that was the federal government's job.

Enactors and defenders of California law say they're following that decision by trying to get out of doing any enforcement of immigration. 

So the argument is really how much can the federal government require states to do on immigration, and to what degree can states or localities pull all resources or put up blocks before they're reaching into federal territory.

That's a pretty broad, kind of classic constitutional question about the powers of the state and powers of the federal government.

It totally is, but a lot of it really boils down to one small section of federal immigration law.

What's the law?

It's Section 1373 of the federal immigration code and it was passed back in 1996. 1373 says states can't restrict government officials from giving the federal government information about peoples' immigration statuses.

So, that's the law the justice department says California is violating

Yeah, among others, but you'll see this section of code crop up in just about every case involving sanctuary cities. And the argument over 1373 goes back before the Trump administration. In fact, the Obama administration had been preparing to withhold some justice department grants under this provision, and the Trump administration has really just expedited that action.

California argues it complies with 1373 — that the statute is just really narrow about what information it requires the state to share and the feds are reading it too broadly. But the state and sanctuary cities are also, simultaneously, arguing that that reading the federal government has is unconstitutional — for the reasons we already mentioned — that it's an overreach, requiring the state to do the federal government's job.

Have courts said anything about this?

In Chicago and most recently in San Francisco on Monday, district courts have said the constitutionality of 1373 is an open question, the kind that can end up in the Supreme Court.

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