Editorial: California can remain a 'sanctuary' for immigrants

The Times Editorial Board
Activists applauded Gov. Jerry Brown for signing California's 'sanctuary state' law.  (Los Angeles Times)

Since his inauguration in 2017, President Trump has waged a mean-spirited, costly and unnecessary war against undocumented immigrants — many of whom have been living in this country for years and have been hard-working, law-abiding members of the their communities. Thankfully, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed Monday that states and cities can't be forced to support that pernicious effort.

Trump has repeatedly tried to cajole or order local governments to be his boots on the ground in this wrongheaded campaign to round up and deport people living in the country illegally. He’s even sought to punish cities that refused to cooperate by denying them federal funds for policing.

California has been a regular target of Trump’s anger and frustration, particularly after the state passed a so-called sanctuary law in 2017 that limits how state and local law enforcement agencies cooperate with federal immigration agents. Former Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions sued to overturn the state's restrictions, complaining that California was trying to secede from federal law.

The Supreme Court brought that lawsuit to a halt Monday when it sided with California and rejected the Trump administration’s challenge. Notably, even Trump’s two appointees on the court — Justice Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh — refused to hear the administration’s appeal.

The administration had argued that the California Values Act, Senate Bill 54, interfered with and impeded federal immigration laws, and federal laws takes precedence over state laws. But the court’s decision makes it clear: The federal government can set and enforce immigration law, but it can’t commandeer local police forces to do the job for them. “Refusing to help is not the same as impeding,” said U.S. District Judge John Mendez in Sacramento, whose decision was upheld by the Supreme Court.

Under the Constitution’s 10th Amendment, states and localities may choose to cooperate with federal authorities but they cannot be compelled to do so. This is an important distinction.

SB 54 limited police agencies in the state from obtaining or sharing information about the immigration status of people in custody, including notifying Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents of potentially deportable immigrants who are about to be released or detaining them past their release date at ICE's request. But the law allows law enforcement to cooperate with federal agents if they have a judicial warrant or if the immigrants are being held for serious or violent crimes.

The idea behind SB 54 remains sound. The state needed a single, cohesive set of rules for how localities interact with federal immigration authorities, rather than a patchwork of policies with some communities more protective of their undocumented residents than others. There are good reasons to limit cooperation with federal immigration authorities: If people who are living in the country illegally come to view local law enforcement officers as just another set of immigration agents, they will be far less likely to report crimes or cooperate with investigators.

Communities are safer when police and local law enforcement officers stay out of the deportation business. Happily, the Supreme Court allowed California to continue that approach, rather than forcing local cops and deputies to join in the administration's maximalist enforcement regime and damage their relationships with the immigrant communities they protect.