House Judiciary Committee Chairman Barry Usher, R-Billings, oversees a hearing on House Bill 200 on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. Credit: Screenshot of livestream courtesy of Montana Public Affairs Network.

Lawmakers are again considering controversial legislation to ban so-called sanctuary cities in Montana. 

On Tuesday, members of the House Judiciary Committee heard testimony on House Bill 200, which would require local jurisdictions to work with federal immigration agencies if a non-citizen is detained, potentially leading to that person’s deportation. It would also require the state attorney general to monitor for violations and enforce the law if passed. Cities or counties that violate the law could face fines or have grant money withheld.

A similar measure passed in 2019, but was vetoed by then-Gov. Steve Bullock

During the hearing, Republicans prevented opponents from mentioning their belief that race was a factor in the bill. Opponents said the proposal relies on incorrect and racist stereotypes of immigrants and could erode trust between the public and law enforcement. Rabbi Laurie Franklin, speaking on behalf of the Montana Association of Rabbis, said the bill would only serve to demonize documented and undocumented immigrants regardless of any criminal history.

“This bill is specifically intended to isolate, intimidate and demonize both documented and undocumented immigrant populations by identifying them as other, unworthy of protection, citizenship and humane treatment,” Franklin said, before Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, interrupted to say her testimony was unrelated to the bill. 

“We’re not going down the rabbit hole of racism, because there are immigrants from all over the world that are every color on earth. We’re not doing racism in this hearing.”

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Barry Usher, R-Billings

Republicans insisted the bill has nothing to do with race and is meant to prevent local governments in Montana from shielding criminals who are in the country illegally from deportation. Committee Chairman Barry Usher, R-Billings, said testimony about the bill could not include mention of race and had to be limited to immigration status. 

“We’re not going down the rabbit hole of racism, because there are immigrants from all over the world that are every color on earth,” he said. “We’re not doing racism in this hearing.”

Still, Rep. Robert Farris-Olsen, D-Helena, said testifiers should be allowed to mention race because some bill supporters during their testimony made claims, like one alleging that an increase in Mexican immigrants worsened quality of life and led to increased crime in a city he lived in at the time, that bordered on racist.  

“We just let like six opponents make some pretty unfortunate comments based on immigration status, and so if we’re going to let them do that, it seems only fair that this testifier, this witness, gets to speak her piece as well,” Farris-Olsen said after Usher interrupted a Helena minister who had mentioned “people of color.”

While there are currently no sanctuary cities in Montana, passage of the proposal would ensure that municipalities can’t pass local legislation enacting that status, said bill sponsor Rep. Kenneth Holmlund, R-Miles City

“This is a proactive bill to prevent the development of [sanctuary cities],” he said. 

The committee didn’t vote on the bill Tuesday. The committee is scheduled to hear testimony on another bill involving immigration enforcement on Wednesday. That proposal, House Bill 223, would allow law enforcement agencies to arrest undocumented immigrants at the request of federal officials. 

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Chris covers Native American issues as a Report for America Corps member based in Billings. He also monitors the Montana Supreme Court, federal courts and criminal justice issues. Before joining MTFP in 2020, Chris most recently covered tribal affairs and Wyoming's Wind River Reservation for the Casper Star-Tribune, and has also reported for the Wisconsin State Journal. Contact Chris at caadland@montanafreepress.org, 406-465-3386 ext. 4, and follow @cjaadland on Twitter.