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State Republicans drawing up immigration policy ahead of 2025 legislative session

by KATE HESTON, Daily Interlake
| June 26, 2024 12:00 AM

Montana Republicans say they will push legislation next year to police immigrants in the country illegally, following in the footsteps of GOP-led states like Texas and Iowa.

Texas passed a bill in March allowing state law enforcement to arrest and deport immigrants in the United States illegally, an authority typically held by the federal government. The law was only briefly in effect before a federal appeals court put it on hold.  

Iowa passed a similar but less expansive law in June, imposing criminal penalties on immigrants found to be in the country illegally and giving local authorities the ability to deport them.  A federal judge temporarily blocked the law on June 17 at the behest of the U.S. Department of Justice and civil rights groups.   

Similar efforts in Oklahoma have also run into opposition from the Biden administration.  

“If you’re in the country illegally, then you’re here in our state illegally too,” said Republican Senate District 5 candidate and House Speaker Matt Regier.  

Regier spearheaded a failed effort earlier this year to reconvene the Montana Legislature to take up immigration at the state level.  While lawmakers nixed the idea of holding a special session, the legislation that Regier was hoping to bring forward likely will just be delayed until the start of the 2025 legislative session.   

Regier said his proposed legislation is modeled on Iowa’s law. It would make it an aggravated misdemeanor for certain types of immigrants to either be in or caught trying to enter Montana. The proposed law would affect immigrants previously denied admission to the United States and those deported or otherwise removed from the U.S.   

Though the legislation, if passed, is likely to end up mired in litigation, Regier said he supported defending it in court.   

“I believe that is something that government should be putting resources into,” Regier said this week. “... We’re not going to stop until we’ve done all we can.”  

Regier also suggested creating a biometric database to store the fingerprints of immigrants in the U.S. illegally who are charged with a crime. And he nodded toward a Florida law making it illegal for an immigrant in the U.S. illegally to apply for a state driver’s license as another option for Montana.  

Pressed on the cost of enforcing those measures, Regier argued that voters would rather pay for a bus ticket for immigrants than public services.    

Other Northwest Montana Republicans shared Regier’s position.  

“Even though this legislation would be put on hold by the federal court system while the constitutionality is debated, I believe it’s important to at least get the law ‘on the books’ in anticipation of the federal courts upholding these laws,” said Republican Tom Millett, candidate for House District 2.   

Millett said that he would be interested in sponsoring or cosponsoring legislation to clarify how to verify citizenship when registering to vote.   

Rep. Braxton Mitchell, a Republican who is running for reelection in the newly carved House District 5, told the Daily Inter Lake said he planned on sponsoring legislation to bring immigration policy into the state’s hands.   

Mitchell said he plans on releasing the full details of his proposal soon. When asked what the state could do, he said it was simple.  

“Ship them one way to Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard like [Florida Gov. Ron] DeSantis did,” he said.  

Mitchell declined to elaborate further. That 2022 flight, paid for by the state of Florida, cost $615,000 or about $12,300 per immigrant, according to NPR. Texas, which has also flown immigrants around the country, spent about $845,000 on the flights as of February, according to The Texas Newsroom, a public radio collaboration. The media outlet put the cost of bussing immigrants out of Texas at $148 million since 2022.   

Mitchell, along with Republican candidate for House District 8 Lukas Schubert, pointed toward possibly pushing for legislation that penalizes businesses that hire people in the country illegally.   

“We need to heavily penalize businesses, organizations and individuals that knowingly bring illegals into our state or hire them. Serious fines and maybe even criminal penalties need to be implemented, perhaps revoking the license of these organizations may be set in law,” Schubert said.   

Doug Adams, Republican candidate for Senate District 2, said that while immigration should be dealt with at a federal level, states should have the ability to enforce federal laws if the federal government abdicates its responsibility.   

“Which is definitely the case,” Adams said.   

Adams, differing from some valley Republicans, opposed blaming businesses for hiring undocumented individuals. It is not the job of the businesses to enforce immigration law, he said.  

Adams also said that he unknowingly hired an immigrant in the country illegally last April, but let him go when he learned of his immigration status.  

“He’s just one of numerous illegal aliens in the valley. I let him go that night because I can’t risk getting in trouble for Biden’s failure to do his job,” Adams said.  

BUT SOME state lawmakers and candidates for higher office deem the conversation around immigration a nonstarter, especially when issues like increased property taxes and a dearth of affordable housing have roiled the state.   

“Even if we saw effective immigration reform at the federal level, which would be a good thing, it wouldn’t do much to address our local issues in the Flathead,” said Arthur Fretheim, a Democrat running against incumbent Republican Rep. Courtenay Sprunger in House District 7. “... I think a lot of politicians who raised your property taxes last session are going to seize this opportunity to change the conversation and we shouldn’t let them.” 

Sprunger, though, pointed to legislation she carried in the previous legislative session imposing harsher penalties on convicted fentanyl dealers in the state, linking the fentanyl crisis to illegal immigration into the U.S.  

Still, in 2021, 82.6% of arrested drug traffickers were U.S. citizens, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. In 2023, 81.9% were citizens.   

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ryan Busse said that the state taking control of immigration policy would have few results.   

“I don’t think the governor of Montana can impact that federal law-making process directly,” Busse said.   

But Gov. Greg Gianforte, a Republican, said through his spokesperson that the state may need to step in if the federal government fails to enforce immigration laws.   

“Border security has rightfully become a top concern for Montanans...” Anna Marian Block, a spokesperson for Gianforte’s campaign said. “... Gov. Gianforte will continue to take firm action to protect Montanans, press Biden to do his job, crack down on drug and human traffickers, and do what the federal government won’t to help secure the southern border.”  

Regier’s Democratic opponent, Link Neimark, like Busse, is less convinced that state action is essential.   

“The immigration issue has been used as a wedge to score political points.  Immigrants are used as scapegoats,” he said. “... I believe the immigration issue is best dealt with at the federal level.  What is needed is comprehensive immigration reform.”  

The U.S. Senate negotiated a bipartisan immigration bill earlier this year that would have seen the southern border close when migrant crossings spike and reformed the nation’s asylum process, including ending the ability of asylum seekers to live in the U.S. while they go through the court system. Republicans in Washington, D.C. killed the bill after former President Donald Trump came out against it.  

Neimark argued that Montana need not become embroiled in litigation over immigration policy. State lawmakers could instead pressure Montana’s congressional delegation to act at the federal level, where immigration policy is made, Neimark said.   

Jennifer Allen, the Democrat running in House District 11, echoed Neimark’s remarks. The state Legislature should focus on issues that Montana voters care about — property taxes, affordable housing, reproductive rights and climate change, she said.   

“We have way more important ways to be spending our time in Montana than trying to pass laws like the ones in Texas or Iowa that will very likely be deemed unconstitutional. That is quite certain to be a gross waste of Montana taxpayer funds,” Allen said in a statement.   

“I would like America to continue to be a beacon to persons fleeing oppression and violence. But of course, I can’t decide funding at the state legislative level for the federal government. If elected, I won’t be wasting much of my time on this,” she continued.   

Senate District 2 candidate Rep. Dave Fern, a Democrat who is termed out of the House, agreed that the state should focus on issues in its wheelhouse.   

“We’ve failed to fix it for a long time, and it became toxically political, everything so many hate about politicians trying to outmaneuver one another and gain an advantage,” Fern said of the immigration debate in a statement.   

His priority issues ahead of 2025 are to cut excessive property taxes, address the growing cost of housing and fixing the state’s behavioral health system.   

“I think [immigration] is mainly, but not exclusively, a federal issue,” Fern said. “... My message to our federally elected officials: lower the temperature of the rhetoric, work in a collaborative manor and make meaningful improvements on the security of our borders.”