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Merced County leaders have mixed reaction to Sessions' immigration lawsuit

California Gov. Jerry Brown is greeted by children as he walks through the Capitol with California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, left, to hold a news conference in response to remarks made U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Wednesday, March 7, 2018, in Sacramento, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
California Gov. Jerry Brown is greeted by children as he walks through the Capitol with California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, left, to hold a news conference in response to remarks made U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Wednesday, March 7, 2018, in Sacramento, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli) AP

Merced County leaders reacted Wednesday after Gov. Jerry Brown slammed U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions for "initiating a reign of terror" against immigrants in California.

Sessions on Tuesday filed suit against the state over three new laws, passed last year to protect immigrants living in California illegally, that he argues violate the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution and interfere with federal immigration enforcement.

"This is basically going to war against the state of California, the engine of the American economy," Brown said. "It's not wise, it's not right and it will not stand."

Brown and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra held a press conference at the Capitol to defend the laws following a speech by Sessions to a law enforcement conference in downtown Sacramento on Wednesday morning.

The state’s defiant stance against the federal government was welcomed by some area leaders, including Councilman Alex McCabe of Livingston, Merced County’s only “sanctuary city.”

“I’m proud of the governor and attorney general for standing behind residents of our community who need support,” he said on Wednesday. “It’s a lot easier to fight a battle of this nature when the whole state supports us.”

McCabe said “little ol’ Livingston” probably has less to worry about than a city like Oakland when it comes to immigration enforcement, but there are “always concerns” when it comes to the U.S. Department of Immigration and Customs, or ICE.

Atwater Mayor Jim Price came down closer to the federal side of the dispute, noting that the debate will likely lead to a long court battle. He said the state has the obligation to follow federal law.

“My thought is I don’t want to jeopardize anything that has to do with federal funding for law enforcement,” he said. “We are a law-and-order city. We’re going to be that.”

Merced County has about 25,000 undocumented adults, according to county officials.

In the speech, which Brown dismissed as a "political stunt," Sessions accused California officials of creating an open borders system and trying to secede from the United States.

"It's about dividing America," Brown said, adding that Sessions was acting more like Fox News than the country's top law enforcement official. "I call upon him to apologize to the people of California for bringing the mendacity of Washington to California and trying to insert discord and division, and I might add dysfunctionality, in a state that's really working."

Brown suggested that, given reports of President Donald Trump's unhappiness with the attorney general since he recused himself from an investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, Sessions might simply be trying to keep his job.

Senate Bill 54, Assembly Bill 103 and Assembly Bill 450 – the three laws that Sessions sued over – restrict California law enforcement officials from cooperating on federal immigration actions, limit the ability of local jails to contract with the federal government to house immigrant detainees, and require employers to ask for a warrant before allowing immigration authorities to conduct a workplace raid.

Commonly known as the "sanctuary state" law, SB 54 has been by far the most controversial. In its lawsuit, the federal government argued that it forces the release of immigrants who have already shown a willingness to engage in criminal activity.

The laws have had no sway over how the Merced County Sheriff’s Office operates on a daily basis, according to Sheriff Vern Warnke. The office cooperates with ICE and provides the same information offered to the general public, he said.

“Even with those new laws, we haven’t changed our practices one bit,” he said.

Deputies don’t ask people about their immigration status, he said, but work with ICE to detain anyone with a targeted warrant.

“It’s anybody that hasn’t gone through the proper process to be here, if they’re committing crimes: See ya,” he said.

Becerra defended the sanctuary state law under the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which he said gives California the right to decline to participate in civil immigration enforcement. He said Trump's threats to pull grants from local police agencies over SB 54 amounted to "coercion."

"Here in California, we respect the law and the Constitution. We expect the federal government to do the same," Becerra said at the press conference. "California is in the business of public safety. We're not in the business of deportations."

Brown said he is still willing to cooperate with Sessions on immigration enforcement targeted at criminals, which he said is possible because of limitations he demanded in SB 54. The law exempts immigrants who've committed any on a list of 800 serious or violent crimes and allows the state prison system to work with the federal government. Brown said he hoped to have a "rational discussion" with U.S. Department of Justice officials once Sessions' "circus" left Sacramento.

But he also blasted Sessions for making "wild accusations" and willfully misrepresenting California's laws and its intentions.

"We know the Trump administration is full of liars," Brown said. "They've pled guilty already to the special counsel."

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