Montana Supreme Court Rejects Immigration Law

The en banc Montana Supreme Court has recently struck down a voter-approved provision in an immigration law which denied state services like unemployment benefits and student financial aid to illegal immigrants.

The bill containing the offending provisions, HB 638, was enacted through a legislative referendum called LR 121 which passed in 2012 after being approved by 80 percent of Montana voters.

On May 10, the Montana Supreme Court issued a 31-page opinion affirming a Lewis and Clark County judge’s 2014 decision barring 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.”

Not only does this ruling allow illegal immigrants to access such services, but the Supreme Court added to the lower court’s decision and threw out the bill’s mandatory reporting requirement that would force employers to turn in illegal immigrant workers.

Although the lower court found this portion of the bill to be valid, the Supreme Court reasoned that the federal law preempted the state’s measure, since state officials were allowed to report such employees even without the bill’s permission.

“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, where 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, Justice 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.”