Faced with rumors of massive immigration raids in the Bay Area, California leaders are dealing with an uncomfortable truth: There’s not much they can do to stop federal authorities from cracking down.
Democratic leaders across California have condemned the possibility of raids, but if a sweep actually happens, it could show the limits of the state’s ability to resist the Trump administration.
But if wide-scale sweeps of workplaces do take place over the next few weeks — as immigrant communities fear after a report in the San Francisco Chronicle — it could be the first test for a new state law limiting immigration authorities’ ability to enter private businesses without warrants.
State Attorney General Xavier Becerra on Thursday acknowledged that the federal government has jurisdiction over immigration, even as he told reporters he was prepared to challenge any enforcement actions that violate California law.
Becerra urged undocumented immigrants to go about their daily lives, noting that he had no confirmation that any raids were being planned.
“Regardless of what the rumors are, the law is the law, the constitution is the constitution, and people have rights,” he said. “We’re prepared to challenge any actions by federal immigration enforcement that would violate the constitutional rights of those who live in the state of California.”
One new tool his office might use, Becerra said, is AB450, a state law that went into effect Jan. 1 prohibiting employers from allowing immigration officials to enter the private areas of their workplaces without a judicial warrant. It also bans employers from handing over employee immigration records without warrants in some cases.
Previously, employers could choose to let immigration agents enter their businesses and detain employees even without a warrant. Employers who do that now are subject to civil penalties ranging from $2,000 to $10,000.
“The state is limited in how they can regulate immigration enforcement, but it does have the ability to regulate employer behavior,” said Michael Young, a legislative advocate for the California Labor Federation, which supported the bill.
AB450 was largely overshadowed by the more prominent “sanctuary state” bill that also passed last year, limiting cooperation between local and state law enforcement and immigration authorities. In part because of that bill, it’s unlikely that Bay Area police departments will assist with any future raids.
Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco and the workplace law’s author, said it was intended to “do what we can at the state level to disrupt draconian worksite raids.”
But while the bill expressly states that employers should follow federal law, some observers say it might create more confusion. Angelo Paparelli, a Los Angeles immigration attorney, wrote in an analysis of the law that it “would be better titled the ‘Have Your Immigration Lawyer on Speed Dial Act.’”
“It will cause a lot of confusion for employers as to walking the fine line between cooperating with immigration agents and refusing to cooperate,” Paparelli said in an interview. He predicted that if any broad immigration raids do happen in California, the new law would quickly be challenged in the courts.
Immigration agents have other tactics they could use for getting around the law, Paparelli noted. During the Bush administration, for example, authorities often rolled up at workplaces with trucks labeled “Immigration and Customs Enforcement” as an intimidation tactic. Some undocumented workers would try to run away, giving the officers probable cause to arrest them even without a warrant.
Meanwhile, if state leaders wanted to fight the federal government directly, there’s another legal avenue they could take. Lucas Guttentag, a Stanford immigration law professor who previously served in the Department of Homeland Security, said the state or localities may be able to make the legal argument that the Trump administration is selectively enforcing immigration laws in California.
“There’s a real question if the federal government is retaliating against certain states or municipalities because of the political views or the legitimate laws in those jurisdictions,” he said. “The government has to enforce the law evenhandedly.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement director Thomas Homan told Fox News this month that the agency will significantly step up immigration enforcement across California following the passage of the sanctuary state bill.
ICE spokesman James Schwab on Wednesday declined to comment on reports of upcoming raids, saying that the agency does not release information on “future enforcement activities.”
Homan suggested on Fox that those targeted would be lawbreakers in the country illegally but released by local jail officials rather than turned over to federal authorities, like the man accused in the 2015 fatal shooting of Kate Steinle.