The political whirlwind raging around California’s “sanctuary” laws isn’t doing much damage to the laws themselves, according to many state legal experts. In fact, the brunt of any legal damage may be felt most by the small city that started the rebellion.
“Los Alamitos could be in trouble,” said Jean Reisz of the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law. She and other legal experts noted that the city went beyond passing a resolution of opposition, which more than a dozen other municipalities have done.
“What they’re doing is different from the other protests,” Reisz said. “They’re saying they won’t comply with state law.”
Reisz said that move—adoption of a noncompliance ordinance—may be unprecedented.
“A California city announcing it won’t follow state law? I haven’t been aware of that happening before,” she said. “The question is, can the [California attorney general’s office] force compliance? In this case, I think it can.”
At issue is whether California policy violates federal law by limiting cooperation with U.S. immigration authorities. State officials, including the governor, say immigration officers aren’t impeded in any way and deportations are continuing in California—that the state’s not breaking any laws and is fully cooperating with federal officials. What it’s not doing is volunteering certain information, such as the names of some immigrants who were jailed for lesser offenses than the 800 serious crimes enumerated in state law.
Opponents of the sanctuary laws, including the California State Sheriffs’ Association, have argued that they cause confusion for law-enforcement officers and business owners. And the state Republican Party has seized on the issue in its quest for gains in this year’s elections.
Los Alamitos is a community of 12,000 tucked into western Orange County, roughly equidistant between the Long Beach harbor and Disneyland. It’s known for its horse-racing track, and now is also the birthplace of what President Donald Trump called a “revolution” of opposition to the California laws.
In March, the City Council voted to exempt the city from the California Values Act—one of three pieces of so-called sanctuary legislation that became law in January. The trio of measures does not offer sanctuary in the way that, say, a church might. But they do offer some immigrants protection from being targeted by immigration officials and held for them.
Two of the three laws were not included in the Los Alamitos ordinance, which was finalized April 17. One of those laws puts a moratorium on expansion of immigration detention centers and gives the state attorney general power to monitor existing detention facilities. The other requires employers to make sure immigration agents have proper warrants to enter workplaces and to notify employees if immigration officials have requested to review immigration documents.
The city singled out the Values Act because of its limits on law enforcement. Los Alamitos wanted no part of that.
“When two governing documents contradict each other, the order of precedence needs to be invoked and followed,” stated a City Council staff report.
Mayor Troy Edgar, who advanced the measure, put it a little more colorfully: “You can’t just keep polishing the cannonball,” he said at the final hearing. “You got to shoot it.”
Since then, other cities and counties have piled on. Six counties, including San Diego and Orange, and at least 13 California cities have voiced opposition to the sanctuary laws, either by passing resolutions or by joining the U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit filed against California on March 6, which Los Alamitos also did.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in announcing the suit that the state had run afoul of the U.S. Constitution’s “supremacy clause,” which says states are subordinate to federal law. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra recently filed a motion to dismiss the suit.
According to Reisz, the resolutions and sign-ons to the federal lawsuit make political statements but carry no particular legal weight. “I don’t think it changes anything at all,” Reisz said. “A judge doesn’t strike down law because it’s unpopular.”
That’s why Huntington Beach took another tack and sued the state, claiming the Values Act is unconstitutional because it restricts local government too tightly and spends general-fund money that could be used by municipalities in other ways.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Department made its own statement in March, when it started listing the release dates of all inmates on its website, regardless of immigration status. The state bars local law-enforcement agencies, including school police and security, from using money or personnel to perform immigration-enforcement tasks.
If California isn’t technically breaking federal law, it’s certainly bending the intent of it, said Michelle Steel, a member of the Orange County Board of Supervisors who proposed joining the federal lawsuit against California.
“We cannot let the state begin cherry-picking which federal laws it decides to follow,” Steel said.
Ironically, the American Civil Liberties Union is making a similar cherry-picking argument in a lawsuit it recently filed against Los Alamitos.
The ACLU asserts that, beyond singling out a state law and deciding to disobey it, the Los Alamitos action promotes animosity toward immigrants. It also alleges the city is wasting taxpayer money by inviting state sanction and increasing legal expenses to make a political statement.
Becerra has not yet made a move—and would not say if he will—to counter the Los Alamitos ordinance, the Huntington Beach lawsuit or the cascading number of cities and counties adopting opposition resolutions.
“In this country, everyone has the right to express themselves,” Becerra said in an emailed statement. “However, the best place for us to figure out how to best move forward on this matter, whether we agree or disagree, is in federal court.”
Becerra says the Values Act is legal and doesn’t conflict with federal law. “It works in concert with federal law,” he said.
Becerra does have the power to come down hard on Los Alamitos, according to Reisz—by withholding state law-enforcement funding, for instance, or requesting a court injunction against its ordinance.
If the city were determined to have violated the sanctuary law in practice—by holding someone for immigration authorities without a warrant, for example—then the state might be able to impose more significant penalties on the city, she said.
Edgar said he understood from the beginning that his city could lose money.
“When we were first considering this, I looked at the penalties the state could levy,” Edgar said. “We get about $100,000 a year from the state for law enforcement. It’s something we don’t want to lose, of course. But if it came to that, that’s definitely something we considered.”
And the City Council knew it might need to fight its stance in court. But it’s worth it, Edgar said.
“This is a constitutional issue,” he said. “We knew exactly what we were doing. We consciously and deliberately exercised our power to take action for what we believe in.”
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