MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Let's bring in the voice now of the attorney general of California. He is Xavier Becerra. He's named in the federal lawsuit along with California Governor Jerry Brown.
Mr. Becerra, welcome.
XAVIER BECERRA: Mary Louise, thanks for having me.
KELLY: Let me start here. What is wrong with the Justice Department argument that your state is interfering with federal immigration enforcement and violating the Constitution?
BECERRA: Because we're not. We're simply doing what the 10th Amendment allows every state to do. And that's to determine how it will provide public safety for all of its residents. We leave immigration enforcement to the federal government. And we don't want to be coerced into trying to do the federal government's job.
KELLY: Let me ask you this, though. This matter of state versus federal jurisdiction over immigration law - as you know, it went all the way up to the Supreme Court in 2012 with Arizona v. the United States. And the Supreme Court mostly ruled in favor of the feds, citing the Constitution. The reasoning was, you can't have every state setting its own immigration policy. It's just unworkable.
BECERRA: And that's absolutely correct. Arizona was trying to set immigration policy, which the states don't have the right or the power to do. That's left to the federal government.
KELLY: How is what you're trying to do different?
BECERRA: We didn't enact immigration laws. We enacted laws regarding our public safety. And so we wanted to make sure that we could move forward with providing for the public safety of Californians and their privacy interests, not immigration.
KELLY: Attorney General Jeff Sessions, as we just heard, is in California. He's making the case today for his federal immigration policy and comparing it to other areas of federal enforcement. Let's take a listen because I want to let you respond to what he said.
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JEFF SESSIONS: Just imagine if a state passed a law forbidding employers for cooperating with OSHA and ensuring workplace safety or the Environmental Protection Agency for looking after polluters. Would you pass a law to do that?
KELLY: Mr. Becerra, how do you counter that?
BECERRA: Attorney General Sessions is confusing cooperation with coercion. We in California allow the federal immigration officers to do what they must do to enforce immigration law. But the federal government doesn't have the right to ask California - or to tell California to do immigration enforcement for it.
KELLY: Another thing, though, that Attorney General Sessions has argued is that this is - that California's policies are making the jobs less safe for federal agents, for ICE agents. Let me play you another bit of what he said today and let you respond to this.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SESSIONS: And rather than allow ICE officers to do their jobs with the transfers at the jailhouse, they force our officers to conduct more dangerous arrests elsewhere, where violent criminals may reside and where children can be caught in a crossfire.
KELLY: What's your response to that?
BECERRA: That's absolutely untrue. ICE agents are, in California or anywhere else, permitted to go in to arrest and detain anyone whom they've got a basis to do so with. We don't get in the way of that.
KELLY: But are the current California laws and policies putting federal officers in danger?
BECERRA: In most cases, or oftentimes, those federal immigration officers are working side by side with state and local law enforcement officers. We're not interested in putting anyone's life in jeopardy. In that case, Attorney General Sessions' statements are not only untrue but dangerous.
KELLY: Can I ask you to put this in context? California's feuding with the Trump administration on all kinds of things, not just immigration but taxes, climate change, marijuana policy. Are you open to the argument, as the state's chief law enforcement officer, that if the state goes its own way on everything, what you get is a big old mess?
BECERRA: Interestingly enough, it's not that California is trying to go its own way. It's that the Trump administration is trying to go its own way. The reason we've had 12 victories against this administration is because it's the Trump administration that has tried to circumvent the law.
KELLY: If that's the case, why do you think the Trump administration is singling out California in this lawsuit?
BECERRA: That's a question to ask Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions.
KELLY: One last thing to ask you before we let you go - you're up for election in November. And I trust that you're going to tell me you're just doing your job, fighting this lawsuit from the Justice Department. But given that you are doing your job while running for office, that suggests you think California voters agree with you on this.
BECERRA: I swore to uphold the Constitution and the laws of the state of California. And I'll do what I'm supposed to do as the attorney for the state, and that's defend the state and the people of California.
KELLY: But I guess what I'm driving at is, do politics enter into your calculation at all on this?
BECERRA: You'll have to ask the question about politics to Jeff Sessions. He's the one that's filed suit against Californians. We're just trying to move forward.
KELLY: Sure. But I'm asking you. You're running.
BECERRA: That's a question for Jeff Sessions about who's playing politics.
KELLY: All right.
Xavier Becerra, thank you very much.
BECERRA: Thank you.
KELLY: That's California Attorney General Xavier Becerra Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.