Montana court strikes down last piece of anti-immigrant law

By: 
MATT VOLZ

HELENA, Mont. — The Montana Supreme Court has barred state officials from reporting the immigration status of people seeking state services, striking down the last piece of a voter-approved law meant to deter people who are in the U.S. illegally from living and working in Montana.

The court's unanimous decision on Tuesday upholds a Helena judge's 2014 ruling in a lawsuit that the law denying unemployment benefits, university enrollment and other services to people who arrived in the country illegally was unconstitutional.

The justices went further, rejecting the one remaining provision that required state workers to report to federal immigration officials the names of applicants who are not in the U.S. legally.

"The risk of inconsistent and inaccurate judgments issuing from a multitude of state agents untrained in immigration law and unconstrained by any articulated standards is evident," Justice Patricia Cotter wrote in the opinion.

The Montana Legislature sent the anti-immigrant measure to the 2012 ballot, where it was approved by 80 percent of voters. The new law required state officials to check the immigration status of applicants for unemployment insurance benefits, crime victim services, professional or trade licenses, university enrollment and financial aid and services for the disabled, among other things.

The law required state officials to deny services to people found to be in the country illegally, and to turn over their names to immigration officials for possible deportation proceedings. The law used the term "illegal aliens," which is not found in federal immigration laws and became the focal point of the lower and higher courts' rulings.

It defined "illegal alien" as a person who is not a U.S. citizen who unlawfully entered or unlawfully remained in the United States. In the lawsuit brought by the Montana Immigrant Justice Alliance, several plaintiffs said they arrived in the U.S. illegally but have since obtained permanent residence status.

They argued they would still be considered "illegal aliens" under the state law, even though the Department of Homeland Security considers them lawful immigrants.

The courts ruled the state was attempting to meddle in an area of federal jurisdiction using a term that is unconstitutional because it conflicts with the federal laws. The entire law is pre-empted by federal immigration laws, the Montana Supreme Court opinion said.

Plaintiffs' attorney Shahid Haque-Hausrath said the decision sends a message that the state has no business creating its own immigrant enforcement schemes.

"The law was a discriminatory attempt to drive immigrants out of the state, and would have unjustly targeted immigrants with valid federal immigration status," he said.

State Sen. David Howard, R-Park City, the sponsor of the original referendum, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Montana Attorney General Tim Fox, whose office defended the law throughout the proceedings, said state legislators were prompted to place the referendum on the 2012 ballot by what he called the U.S. government's failure to properly and lawfully regulate immigration.

"This case is concluded, but it remains to be seen if the federal government will ever fulfill its duty," Fox said in a statement.

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