Jefferson Beauregard Sessions was named after two Confederates, so it was peculiar to hear him talk as if secession was a bad thing. On Tuesday morning, the Attorney General continued his war with California’s leadership, this time admonishing it for refusing to help Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents collect undocumented immigrants for deportation. Alarmist and hyperbolic rhetoric about immigration has always been this administration’s thing. In that respect, Sessions delivered a tour de force.
“There is no nullification. There is no secession,” he said in Sacramento one day after announcing a lawsuit seeking to block three relatively new “sanctuary” laws that limit state and local cooperation with federal immigration enforcement efforts. “Federal law is the supreme law of the land. I would invite any doubters to go to Gettysburg, or to the tombstones of John C. Calhoun and Abraham Lincoln. This matter has been settled.”
A man who was called out by the late Coretta Scott King for his efforts to suppress black votes during his time as Alabama’s attorney general probably shouldn’t be using Lincoln as a moral shield. As Senator Kamala Harris said, “I think that Jeff Sessions in particular should understand that when he starts evoking Civil War comparisons it’s going to be interpreted as highly offensive, and if I were him, I’d avoid making Civil War comparisons.” But I’d argue that the one reason why Sessions has resisted the urge to resign despite Trump’s constant antagonism is that he has lived his entire life waiting for the opportunity to do exactly this. Huffington Post reported Thursday on a draft version of the Department of Justice’s five-year enforcement plan, which both prioritizes crackdowns on the undocumented and conveniently omits mentions of civil rights enforcement. Sessions is attempting some radical social engineering, using a lot of law enforcement power – and little to no legal justification – to keep white people in the majority for just a little bit longer.
That is one reason why, as a California resident, I’m glad that Sessions is suing our state.
For one, he’ll lose. The challenge to the three “sanctuary” laws is flimsy because nothing in them keeps ICE from doing its job. Yet there we were on Tuesday, with Sessions invoking “secession” and making similarly terrible comparisons. “Just imagine if a state passed a law forbidding employers from cooperating with OSHA in ensuring workplace safety. Or the EPA, looking for a polluter,” he said. “That would obviously be absurd. But it would be no different in principle from this new law enacted by California.” That, obviously, misstates the facts. The three laws he seeks to impede don’t forbid anything, really. One limits information sharing between state, local and federal authorities about nonviolent suspects, but allows for such information to be freely submitted in the case of serious crimes. Another restricts employers from assisting ICE – but only without a subpoena or court order. The third merely helps California operate more humane detention centers for undocumented immigrants in custody, something no one with any sense should oppose.
Sessions misrepresented the very laws he opposes, so it’s no surprise that California’s law enforcement has no idea what to do. Many in attendance at the California Peace Officers Association gathering where Sessions delivered the speech expressed confusion. But again, this is why I’m glad Sessions is suing. A former Sacramento County sheriff told the Washington Post, “This [lawsuit] represents the potential for some clarification that is desperately needed. It’s like a child getting diametrically opposing directives from his parents. What is the child to do?” Do they follow the directives of federal officials like Sessions and assist Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, in terrorizing immigrant communities? Or do they follow their state’s direction under these three laws, protecting their communities without regard to their immigration status and refusing to help this administration in its jackboot crusade to Make America White Again?
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The Department of Justice’s lawsuit affords California leadership the opportunity to make a sorely needed point about what America now is, and is becoming. I don’t enjoy the manufactured drama and outrage that this administration regularly spews forth about “law and order,” even as their President regularly defecates on the rule of law as he sees fit. But while it surely will cause immigrant families undeserved stress and fright, the Sessions lawsuit allows California more exposure for its resistance to the administration’s efforts to demonize, divide, and dehumanize. Sessions has provided a platform for the state to show that what it is doing to wash its hands of this racist nonsense is both legally defensible and morally unimpeachable. That’s an America that we should want to be a part of – and that, judging by the polls, most of us still are. California isn’t trying to leave the United States, as Sessions implied. It is trying to preserve what is left of it.
For example, take what Libby Schaaf did in late February. The Oakland mayor, who years ago worked on deportation cases as an attorney, learned of an ICE operation in Northern California, a sting aimed at rounding up a massive number of undocumented immigrants in the course of a few days. While ICE took more than 150 into custody, its acting director, Thomas Honan, said that they could have detained hundreds more “criminal aliens,” as he labeled them, were it not for Schaaf. Before the raid, she had gone on television to warn her city that ICE was coming to the Bay Area. She remains, rightfully, unapologetic. Whether her constituents are living in the United States illegally or not, Schaaf saw it as her duty – both as a mayor and as a person of privilege – to share the information she had to protect them, regardless of their ability or inclination to vote for her. I’d expect any elected official to do the same.
During his speech, Sessions singled out Schaaf for the worst scolding. “How dare you?” he exclaimed. “How dare you needlessly endanger the lives of our law enforcement officers to promote a radical open-borders agenda?” His emphasis on “endanger the lives” is of a common thread with much Trumpian rhetoric, enhancing the idea that black and brown people, particularly immigrants of those hues, are prone to illegality. In late February, Trump threatened to pull ICE from California entirely, insisting that it would become “a crime nest like you’ve never seen before.” Talk like this is utterly reckless, of course, and leads to more racial and cultural division. That may be the only takeaway out of this California nonsense for Sessions, Trump, and the whole clan. Perpetuating the myth of black and brown dangerousness remains powerful and potentially deadly – but if you’re a Republican, it’s still good politics.
However, it is also inconsistent. The reason that Sessions also wants us to visit the grave of John C. Calhoun is because he was one of the foremost advocates of “states’ rights,” something Republicans like Sessions now invoke to justify restricting access to abortion and the ballot box – or even, in some extreme cases, the Confederacy itself. But Calhoun was also a big fan of slavery, as well as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which conscripted free states into the practice of rounding up those black folks who had escaped their kidnappers.
While undocumented immigrants are not escaped slaves, this President and Attorney General seem to want to subject them to similar fears. California is saying no, and as it fights this lawsuit, other states will receive a powerful example of how to respond when this president and his administration tell them to behave.