A U.S. judge said Wednesday that he was not convinced California enacted protections for immigrants in the country illegally in an effort to interfere with federal immigration enforcement — potentially undercutting a key argument by the Trump administration in its lawsuit seeking to block three state laws.
The laws instead appeared to be a message from the state that it didn't want to participate in federal immigration policies, U.S. Judge John Mendez said.
"We're not going along anymore, we're not participating," he said about how he read the state's motives.
Outside the courthouse in California's capital city, scores of people protested U.S. immigration policies. Some carried signs that said "Keep Families Together" and "Family Separation is UnAmerican," referring to the administration's "zero tolerance" policy on illegal border crossings that has separated children from their families.
President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday ending the separations but not the policy that prosecutes all adults caught crossing illegally.
California has been a leader in opposing Trump administration policies, filing more than 50 lawsuits, mostly over immigration and environmental decisions, and notching some significant court victories. The administration has fought back, sparring with the state's Democratic leaders and criticizing their so-called sanctuary policies.
It sued California in March — a move that Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown described as "going to war."
One of the laws the U.S. is targeting requires the state to review detention facilities where immigrants are held. Another bars law enforcement from providing release dates and personal information of people in jail, and the third bars employers from allowing immigration officials on their premises unless the officials have a warrant.
California officials say their policies promote trust between immigrant communities and law enforcement. The administration says the state is allowing dangerous criminals on the street.
The federal government argues in its lawsuit that the U.S. Constitution gives it pre-eminent power to regulate immigration.
Justice Department attorney Chad Readler told Mendez that it was clear the laws were passed to obstruct federal immigration enforcement.
"I'm not that clear and that convinced," the judge responded.
Mendez, who was nominated to the bench by Republican President George W. Bush, said he would not issue a ruling Wednesday.
Mendez asked an attorney for California, Christine Chuang, why the law on detention facility inspections was necessary and whether it discriminated against federal immigration authorities.
Chuang said the Legislature wanted to "shed some light on" a particular set of detention facilities.
Mendez also pressed Chuang about the law barring employers from allowing immigration officials on their premises unless the officials have a warrant.
"The statute really puts the employer between a rock and a hard place," he said.
Federal officials say the restriction on accessing businesses eliminates a "critical enforcement tool" to fight illegal employment.
The state has said the law explicitly authorizes compliance with inspections of employment records to make sure employees are allowed to work in the U.S.
In challenging the third state law, the administration says it needs inmate information to safely take custody of people in the country illegally who are dangerous and need to be removed.
Mendez expressed skepticism that California was required to provide inmate release dates or detain inmates at the federal government's request.
"No one has agreed with this interpretation you have put forward, not one court," the judge said. "Why am I going to be the one?"
The state has said there is no evidence the law is causing more dangerous immigrants to be freed.
California's laws, two of which went into effect in January, follow Trump's promises to ramp up deportations. The administration has tried to crack down on sanctuary jurisdictions by restricting funding if they refuse to help federal agents detain and deport immigrants.
California, which this year became the second "sanctuary state," has resisted that move.
In fighting the lawsuit, state officials argue the administration is trying to assume powers that have long been understood to belong to states and cannot show that the state's policies are causing harm.