U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions vowed Wednesday to stop California's resistance to a federal crackdown on immigration enforcement, a day after the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the state over its immigrant-related policies.
The move is the latest friction between the federal government and the Democrat-governed west coast state, which has repeatedly attempted to defy the Republican Trump administration and provide a legal buffer between increased enforcement and California's undocumented population - the largest in the nation.
"California is using every power it has — and some it doesn't — to frustrate federal law enforcement. So you can be sure I'm going to use every power I have to stop them," Sessions, the top U.S. law enforcement officer, said.
Speaking in Sacramento to the California Peace Officers' Association, Sessions described California's state laws related to so-called "sanctuary" policies, as a risk to law enforcement officers.
"We are fighting to make your jobs safer and to help you reduce crime in America. We are fighting to have a lawful system of immigration that serves Americans," he said. "And we intend to win this fight."
The lawsuit filed Tuesday says three laws passed in California last year blatantly obstruct federal immigration law and thus violate the U.S. Constitution's supremacy clause, which gives federal law precedence over state laws.
The laws in question prohibit employers from letting immigration agents enter work sites or view employee files without a subpoena or warrant, prohibit local law enforcement from alerting immigration agents when detainees are released from custody and stop local governments from contracting with for-profit companies and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) to hold immigrants.
Sessions has made changes to the U.S. immigration system a priority during the first year of President Donald Trump's administration. Immigrant advocacy groups around the country have protested repeatedly in opposition to the federal government's decisions, which range from ending a program from undocumented youth, to dramatically cutting back the U.S. refugee program, to eliminating the prioritization system put into place by the Obama administration for detaining undocumented immigrants with criminal records.
"The Trump administration has been obsessive in their attack and scape-goating of immigrants," the California-based group Asian Americans Advancing Justice said in a statement released after Sessions' speech. "The Constitution is clear: the federal government cannot commandeer California's resources to carry out deportations."
Eddie Carmona, leader of PICO California, an umbrella group for faith-based organizations that support immigrant rights, told VOA after a separate news conference by activists that the lawsuit is "a political maneuver on their end to try thwart everything that we've been doing to protect our immigrants families here in the state of California."
"I think that the message that we're trying to send today to folks that are watching this is that 'look, Sessions and Trump and your deportation force are not welcome here.' And we're going to do whatever we can. Not only are we going to continue to support current reforms that are in place and defend them, but we're also going to do more."
Top officials in California were also quick to counter Sessions.
"California is in the business of public safety. We're not in the business of deportations," California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said Wednesday. "In California, we don't confuse coercion with cooperation. Neither should the Trump administration."
On Twitter, Becerra said that as the top law enforcement official for the state, he took an oath to uphold the law, including those that attempt to limit the federal government's push for increased immigration enforcement.
California is home to some 2.3 million undocumented immigrants, according to a 2014 estimate by Pew Research Center.
VOA Immigration Reporter Aline Barros contributed to this report from Washington.