After Police Cooperated With ICE, California's Sanctuary Law's Strength Will Be Tested in Court

Immigrant rights advocates are set to bring one of the first legal challenges against a city that allegedly contravened the California Values Act.
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ICE Final

Immigrant rights advocates filed a complaint with California's Daly City this week after police there handed a local undocumented man, arrested in a traffic stop, over to federal immigration authorities, apparently violating the state's sanctuary protections for immigrants. Attorneys say the complaint is one of several expected to lead to the first lawsuit over local law enforcement agencies' non-compliance with the California Values Act, which bars cooperation between the state's local authorities and federal immigration officials. If litigated, the case is set to become a test of the sanctuary law's legal teeth.

On Monday, dozens of immigrant rights supporters led by Asian Americans Advancing Justice—Asian Law Caucus marched through Daly City City Hall to submit an administrative complaint against the city and its police for their treatment of Armando Escobar Lopez. Police stopped Escobar Lopez on his way home from church in May, his attorney and policy director at Advancing Justice Angela Chan says. The officers reportedly would not tell Escobar Lopez why he was being stopped, instead inquiring about his immigration status. Later, at the police station, Daly City Police officers notified Immigration and Customs Enforcement of Escobar Lopez's status and handed him over to the agency's staff.

The complaint is the first step in what may amount to a more formal legal standoff. "California law requires that we file an administrative complaint with a city or county before we are allowed to file a lawsuit alleging certain state law claims," Chan says. "Once we receives the city's response to our complaint, we can then bring a lawsuit in court."

A copy of the complaint viewed by Pacific Standard alleges that, among several federal and state laws, Daly City police has violated the California Values Act's "prohibition against asking about immigration status, notifying ICE, providing personal information to ICE, arresting based on a civil immigration warrant, detaining individuals for ICE, and the prohibition against transferring individuals to ICE custody."

The California Values Act, SB 54, was enacted in 2017 in response to the Trump administration's push to ramp up deportations. The law has withstood legal challenges. In April, a federal judge upheld an earlier ruling against a Trump administration lawsuit that argued SB 54 was impeding federal immigration enforcement efforts. But despite its success against Trump administration litigation, SB 54 offers no suggested legal penalties for contravention of the law, and, to date, there has been no lawsuit against local governments and law enforcement that have failed to uphold it.

Among the remedies that the complaint requests from Daly City are money damages, a U visa certification—which protects victims of crime who cooperate with authorities to seek justice—for Escobar Lopez that would allow him to remain in the country, and amendments to the police department's policy and training for officers in compliance with SB 54.

Several immigrant rights and immigrant legal aid advocates were uncertain about what the penalties for contravening SB 54 would be and if any local authorities had ever been reprimanded for contravening it. Whether SB 54 would prevail against federal immigration enforcement considerations is uncertain. "State rules must usually yield to federal laws and regulations" on immigration enforcement, John S.W. Park, an Asian American studies professor at the University of California–Santa Barbara and author of Immigration Law and Society, told Pacific Standard last week"The structure of existing immigration law and precedent will limit the effectiveness of any state rules."

Immigrant rights advocates were uncertain of what the protocol would be for enforcing SB 54 in a case where local police did not observe it. "I believe the attorney general would have to prosecute that as only law enforcement agencies could break the law—and I don't think that's happened yet," says Kevin Solis, spokesman for immigrant rights group DREAM Team Los Angeles.

It remains unclear whether California Attorney General Xavier Becerra's office was looking into the case. The office's press team did not respond to requests for comment as of press time.

In absence of the attorney general, Solis acknowledges that the responsibility of ensuring that SB 54 is observed seems to fall on immigrant rights advocates. "Not to weaken the Act, but as activists, we looked at these acts as formal positions of the State to be immigrant friendly," Solis says, adding that, where some city authorities were found to have "dragged their feet" on implementing SB 54, "then we'd sue to bring them into compliance."

Still, advocates are confident that the act is an important safeguard for immigrants. "California's sanctuary law, the California Values Act, is an important safeguard that provides a baseline of protection for immigrant communities against the heinous attacks of the current occupant of the White House," says Layla Razavi, policy director of the California Immigration Policy Center advocacy group. "The California Values Act relies upon the state's public officials to ensure that it is fully implemented and enforced. If in fact any law enforcement is shown to break the law and collude with ICE, then we would hope and expect to see the attorney general investigate the matter and determine whether there is proper cause to file a lawsuit."

Advancing Justice has filed several other administrative complaints against the contravention of SB 54, Chan says. Whether any of those arise past the administrative complaint phase to an actual lawsuit remains to be seen. "To our knowledge, a lawsuit has not yet been filed to enforce SB 54, but that will likely happen with one of these pending administrative complaints by the end of this year," she says.

Chan is confident that she would prevail in a legal challenge against Daly City's cooperation with ICE. "In terms of remedies, because individuals [in Escobar Lopez's and other complaints] were held for ICE, not based on a warrant signed by a judge, there also are Fourth Amendment, false imprisonment, emotional distress, and negligence claims that can be brought in conjunction with the SB 54 claims. It's likely these individuals can get damages, injunctive, and declaratory relief."

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