Montana Justices Shut Down Immigration Law

     HELENA, Mont. (CN) — The en banc Montana Supreme Court struck down a voter-approved provision that denied state services like unemployment benefits and student financial aid to illegal immigrants.
     House Bill 638, which denied certain state-funded services to people deemed “illegal aliens,” was enacted through a legislative referendum called LR 121, which passed in 2012 after 80 percent of Montana voters approved it.
     On May 10, the Montana Supreme Court issued a 31-page opinion affirming a Lewis and Clark County judge’s 2014 decision, which barred the state “from using an individual’s unlawful entry into the United States as a factor in determining that individual’s entitlement to state benefits.”
     The latest ruling not only allows illegal immigrants to have access to such services, but also took the case a step further than the lower court did, throwing out the bill’s mandatory reporting requirement that would force employers to turn in illegal immigrant workers.
     While the lower court upheld that element of the law, the Montana Supreme Court found that federal law preempted such a measure because state officials were still given the opportunity to report such employees without the bill.
     “This holding does not prohibit state officials from communicating with the federal government about an individual’s immigration status, since state officials are entitled to do so absent LR 121,” Justice Patricia Cotter wrote for the full court.
     The underlying lawsuit was filed in 2012 by the Montana Immigrant Justice Alliance, on behalf of several plaintiffs. They argued that many employees who entered the country illegally have since gotten legal status, but under LR 121, they would still be considered “illegal aliens” despite their current legal documentation.
     In the state high court opinion, Cotter said that the legislation was “infected” with an unconstitutional definition of the term “illegal alien.” The bill defined “illegal alien” as “an individual who is not a citizen of the United States and who has unlawfully entered or remains unlawfully in the United States.”
     “LR 121 was intended to force ‘illegal aliens . . . to leave Montana rather than use our services and take our jobs.’ The definition of ‘illegal alien’ is an essential part of the law; indeed, the law would serve no purpose if the definition of ‘illegal alien’ were removed,” Cotter wrote. “The entire statute is preempted by federal law.”

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