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A Judge Ruled Against Trump's Challenge to California's Sanctuary Law. But That Doesn't Mean the Immigration Battle Is Over.

Analysts anticipate the war between Sacramento and Washington will go to the Supreme Court.
The California state flag flying at San Francisco City Hall.

The California state flag flying at San Francisco City Hall.

A federal judge ruled Thursday against the bulk of the Trump administration's bid to block California sanctuary state provisions. While the ruling appeared on its face to be a win for opponents of the administration's immigration policies, analysts predict the case will eventually make its way to the Supreme Court.

"This is a triumph for California," says Jean Reisz, a University of Southern California law professor and supervising attorney at the university's immigration clinic. "The court was clear that the federal government cannot commandeer local governments to enforce its objectives and California has the right to refuse to use its resources to assist in the federal immigration enforcement agenda."

But the day wasn't a total loss for the Trump administration. While Judge John Mendez ruled that California acted within its right to bar cooperation between state employees and federal immigration enforcement, he also invalidated the parts of the state's so-called sanctuary protections that bar private employers from cooperating with immigration agents.

The Department of Justice did not immediately indicate whether it would continue its legal battle. "While we are disappointed that California's other laws designed to protect criminal aliens were not yet halted, the Justice Department will continue to seek out and fight unjust policies that threaten public safety," spokesman Devin O'Malley wrote in an email to Pacific Standard.

Immigration advocates lauded the decision, which they believe upholds the state's constitutionally guaranteed right to determine how its funds are used. "California will do what it takes to protect our economy and our workers and the residents who make this state a model of diversity and inclusions," says Kevin Solis, spokesman for immigrant rights group DREAM Team Los Angeles," The federal government cannot force states to be their immigration enforcement arm."

Other rights activists were cautiously optimistic about the ruling's portents.

"Though we are disappointed that the judge did block some portions of California's sensible laws protecting immigrants and all our state's residents, we believe this is a key step forward in ensuring states and localities are not forced to use local resources to support the administration's harsh and inhumane treatment of immigrant communities," says Anthony Ng, the policy manager at Asian Americans Advancing Justice–Los Angeles, a legal advocacy group.

The ruling indicates that the Trump administration overplayed its hand by asking the courts to halt California law. "The judge's opinion strikes me as very carefully reasoned," says Margaret Russell, a constitutional law professor at Santa Clara University. "The Trump administration was asking for a preliminary injunction, which requires a very high burden of justification by the government that it is likely to win at trial and that irreparable harm will occur if the California laws are enforced."

The court's ruling on private employers, heralded as a triumph by the Trump administration, means one less echelon of protection for immigrants. In January, following a heightened number of immigration enforcement raids that analysts say came in retaliation for the Golden State's opposition to Trump's immigration policy, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra warned that under new sanctuary provisions enacted this year, the state could fine employers who cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement $10,000. Now immigrants are left without that protection.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra.

California officials viewed Thursday's ruling as a win. "The federal court issued a strong ruling against federal government overreach in USA v. CA. The Constitution gives the people of California, not the Trump administration, the power to decide how we will provide for our public safety and general welfare. California's laws work in concert—not conflict—with federal law," Becerra wrote in a statement emailed to Pacific Standard.

But Russell estimates that this is the beginning of a more protracted battle that, given recent developments in the judiciary, may not end well for Sacramento. "This is certainly a case that could get to the Supreme Court, and no doubt the Trump administration would try hard for that," Russell adds. "The new composition of the Supreme Court will surely be more receptive to Trump's arguments."

In the past, the Supreme Court has ruled against bids to allow states to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement. Mendez's ruling cited 2012 Supreme Court case Arizona v. United States, in which California challenged an Arizona law allowing local police forces to cooperate with ICE. California argued that, even by helping ICE, it was interfering in a matter of federal jurisdiction. The court ruled in California's favor.

It remains to be seen whether the precedent established by Arizona v. United States would factor into a Supreme Court deliberation over California's sanctuary protections. Opponents of President Donald Trump's travel ban targeting five Muslim-majority nations were shocked when, last week, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the ban, despite what analysts say was ample evidence of a xenophobic animus.

In the aftermath of the travel ban ruling, Asian Americans Advancing Justice–Los Angeles litigation director Laboni Hoq told Pacific Standard that the courts were still a functioning means of holding the Trump administration to account, even if the decision on Muslim travelers appeared to run afoul of the Constitution.

"Courts still matter," Hoq said. "If you look at the courts that first heard the Muslim ban challenges, they mostly ruled against it. We need to do the work at the local level, so first these programs don't get instituted."

USC's Riesz agreed with Russell that Thursday's decision doesn't mark the end of the line for the tug-of-war between California and U.S. government officials, but anticipates a different outcome to a constitutional challenge to Thursday's ruling.

"I do think that this could go to the Supreme Court but I do not anticipate a complete reversal of the District Court's order under this evidentiary record," Reisz says, explaining that the travel ban was ruled constitutional on the grounds of "the federal government's broad power over who may enter and remain in the United States." "The sanctuary city litigation essentially deals with the federal power over states which is more limited," she says.

While California officials wait for Washington to possibly respond further to Thursday's decision, the state's legislators must take further action to reinforce the law's protections, advocates say.

"We've long known SB-54 [California's sanctuary law] was fully permitted by the Constitution, and [Thursday's] decision removes any doubt," Chris Newman, the litigation director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, an advocacy group, said in a press release. "Now that it is abundantly clear SB-54 is fully constitutional, we hope lawmakers will replicate and expand upon it."

Exactly how California might expand upon its sanctuary provisions remains to be seen.