Appeals Court Denies Trump Administration’s Attempt to Invalidate California Sanctuary Laws

April 21, 2019 Updated: April 22, 2019

A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously upheld the better part of three so-called sanctuary laws interfering with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) efforts to uphold federal immigration laws in the state of California.

The Golden State is home to more than 2 million illegal aliens.

The Trump administration, which seems certain to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court, had repeatedly run into roadblocks as it tries to crack down on sanctuary cities. U.S. District Judge William H. Orrick III of San Francisco previously issued a permanent nationwide injunction against President Donald Trump’s Executive Order 13768, which would have withheld federal funding from sanctuary jurisdictions that refuse to cooperate with ICE.

Democratic California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, a frequent legal antagonist of the Trump administration who claims sanctuary laws promote trust between illegal aliens and law enforcement, crowed about his state’s legal victory.

“As much as all the attention is on whether Donald Trump obstructed justice, we continue to prove in California that the rule of law not only stands for something but that people cannot act outside of it. The Ninth Circuit ruled in our favor today, demonstrating that the rights of states and the 10th Amendment continue to thrive.”

The federal government’s lawsuit had sought to strike down AB 450, which prohibits private employers from voluntarily cooperating with federal immigration officials—including officials carrying out worksite enforcement efforts; SB 54, which prevents state and local law enforcement officials from providing information to the feds about the release date of deportable criminal aliens in their custody; and AB 103, which imposes a state-run inspection and review regime on the federal detention of aliens held in facilities under federal contracts.

When then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions launched the lawsuit a year ago, he said Americans were “right to insist that this country should end the illegality, create a rational immigration flow, and protect the nation from criminal aliens.”

He continued: “It cannot be that someone who illegally crosses the border and two days later arrives in Sacramento, Dubuque, Louisville, and Central Islip is home free—never to be removed. It cannot be the policy of a great nation to up and reward those who unlawfully enter its country with legal status, Social Security, welfare, food stamps, and work permits. Meanwhile, those who engage in this process lawfully and patiently and wait their turn are discriminated against at every turn.”

Then-Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, savaged the lawsuit at the time, calling it “an act of war” against California that is part of a larger “reign of terror” against illegal aliens.

U.S. District Court John A. Mendez threw out most of the lawsuit on July 9, 2018, but the Trump administration appealed. Mendez found that SB 54, AB 103, and AB 450 could continue in force but invalidated a provision in the latter law that imposes a financial penalty on private employers who permit immigration officials to visit places of employment.

Judge Milan Smith
Judge Milan Smith. (By Paulzmuda–Own work, [CC BY-SA 4.0 (])
On April 18, Judge Milan D. Smith Jr. wrote the legal opinion for the circuit court.

The federal government argued in the legal proceeding that SB 54 “seeks to impede the enforcement of federal immigration laws by manipulating the overlap between state criminal enforcement and federal immigration enforcement.”

“California has no authority to demand a judicial warrant that Congress chose not to require. … By prohibiting transfers of custody within secure areas of local jails in the absence of a judicial warrant, California prevents federal officers from obtaining custody through a safe and peaceful transfer.”

Smith rejected this argument, writing that while SB 54 “makes the jobs of federal immigration authorities more difficult,” it “does not directly conflict with any obligations” imposed on state or local governments by federal law “because federal law does not mandate any state action.”

Smith’s panel also upheld AB 450, which requires employees to notify employees—including illegal alien employees—of upcoming federal immigration inspections. The state statute “imposes no additional or contrary obligations that undermine or disrupt the activities of federal immigration authorities,” the judge wrote.

Smith did rule against a provision of AB 103, finding the rule giving state officials the power to inspect privately-operated federal immigration detention facilities impermissibly intruded on federal authority. “Only those provisions that impose an additional economic burden exclusively on the federal government are invalid,” the judge wrote.