During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told Senators that the Department of Justice is considering subjecting state and local officials to criminal charges if they implement or enforce so-called sanctuary policies that stop jurisdictions from cooperating with Federal immigration authorities.
“The Department of Justice is reviewing what avenues might be available. The context of this is, of course, not only putting my ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] officers at risk, but also finding an efficient and effective way to enforce our immigration laws,” Nielsen said.
It’s safer for immigration agents to do their jobs if they have the assistance of local and state jurisdictions, she said.
Nielsen’s warning comes after California State Senate Bill 54, signed into law last October by Democratic Governor Jerry Brown, went into effects on Jan. 1. Brown said the legislation was a balanced measure, which allows police and sheriff’s agencies to continue targeting dangerous criminals, while protecting hardworking families without legal residency in the country. The law limits who state and local law enforcement agencies can hold, question and transfer at the request of federal immigration authorities.
According to the Los Angles Times, Brown added: “In enshrining these new protections, it is important to note what the bill does not do. This bill does not prevent or prohibit Immigration and Customs Enforcement or the Department of Homeland Security from doing their own work in any way.”
During debate over the law, The Times reported that legal experts have said federal officials may try to block the law in court to keep it from being implemented. Some doubt such challenges would be successful, pointing to the 10th Amendment and previous rulings in which courts have found the federal government can’t compel local authorities to enforce federal laws.
During an interview with Fox News earlier this month, ICE Acting Director Thomas Homan explicitly warned California authorities that they “better hold on tight” as he threatened a crackdown on so-called sanctuary cities, also suggesting politicians who back sanctuary status should be charged with crimes.
“We gotta take [sanctuary cities] to court and we gotta start charging some of these politicians with crimes,” Homan said, explaining that he believed politicians who pushed sanctuary city legislation should be held “personally accountable” for their actions.
SB 54, the “California Values Act,” was authored by strong LGBT ally Sen. Kevin de León, and signed into law after a compromise with LA County Sheriff Jim McDonnell.
“We are ironically ending this session the way we started, talking about protecting the most vulnerable among us,” openly gay Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) said after the bill passed the “sanctuary state” bill last September.
Cecillia Wang, deputy legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, said charging local or state officials with crimes for not cooperating with federal immigration authorities would be unlawful and a violation of the Constitution.
“These are really troubling intimidation tactics by the Trump administration,” Wang told Newsweek. “If they’re threatening to prosecute state and local officials, it raises a number of concerns, including if they end up going after state or local officials who have been outspoken in opposing the Trump administration’s draconian and unlawful immigration enforcement policies. I think you’ve got a serious First Amendment problem.”
She added: “The Constitution doesn’t let the federal government force state and local officials to do the president’s bidding in this way.”
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who grilled Nielsen Tuesday on the issue during the hearing, “was deeply disturbed to hear that this Administration is actively looking for ways to prosecute California elected officials who have passed laws to protect public safety and combat the damaging effects of this Administration’s immigration enforcement policies,” according to her press secretary, Tyrone Gayle.
The Justice Department move is the latest escalation in the battle between the Trump administration and cities and states over sanctuary city policies. A federal judge in November blocked a Trump executive order that sought to strip sanctuary cities of federal funding.
The battle over immigration heats up as a Quinnipiac Poll released last week showed that 86% of Americans, Including 76% of Republicans, want Dreamers to stay in America and nearly 79% support path to citizenship, including 64% of Republicans.