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Federal Judge Strikes Down Most Provisions of Montana’s Immigration Law

gavel-3-1409593-m.jpgIn 2012, approximately 80% of Montana voters voted for a state law called Legislative Referendum No. 121 (or LR-121) that would require state government officials to perform extensive immigration status background checks on any individual who applies for services provided by the state. The services ranged from applying for government jobs to professional or trade licenses, crime victim assistance, unemployment benefits, and others.

LR 121

The purpose of the Montana law was to establish a mechanism to deny government positions and state-provided assistance to foreign nationals who are residing in the U.S. without proper immigration authorization. If, during the course of an immigration background check, the state officer discovered the applicant did not have valid status in the U.S., the foreign national’s name would be given to federal immigration officials, and the sought-after benefits would be denied.

The Lawsuit

The Montana Immigrant Justice Alliance (MIJA), an immigrants’ rights advocacy group, filed a lawsuit challenging LR 121 in Montana’s First Judicial District Court. In its complaint filed with the court, the MIJA alleged that LR 121 represented an unconstitutional infringement on Montana residents’ right to privacy, that it was a violation of due process, and that it violated equal protection rights. Additionally, MIJA also stated that the law was preempted by federal laws that already address immigration-related issues.

The Judge’s Ruling

District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock heard the case and on Friday ruled that LR 121 indeed conflicted with federal immigration laws. Judge Sherlock struck down the majority of the provisions of the law and stated that the right to regulate immigration issues rests solely with the federal government pursuant to the U.S. Constitution.

As justification for his decision, the judge pointed to the fact that LR 121 created its own definition of who was an “illegal alien,” a term that the federal law does not define. Because of the law’s own definition, the judge hypothesized state government officials would themselves determine an individual’s immigration status, which is a determination that can only be made by federal immigration agents.

Judge Sherlock did allow one section of LR 121 to be enforced, which is a provision of the law that requires state government officials to send names of unauthorized foreign nationals to federal immigration agencies.

What Happens Next
The state of Montana has the right to appeal the decision, which the state attorneys received on Monday. However, as of June 25, 2014, there has been no announcement that the state will exercise its right to appeal.

The Rant

Judge Sherlock’s ruling is certainly a welcome affirmation from the courts that states are not empowered to pass arbitrary laws that infringe on the rights of both U.S. citizens and foreign nationals, regardless of immigration status. While the entire country continues to wait for the House of Representatives to move forward with comprehensive immigration reform, we anticipate that more state laws addressing immigration issues will be enacted. Continue to visit regularly in order to remain informed on the newest developments in immigration law!

Additional Blog Posts

Immigration Judges Request Separation from the Department of Justice, ImmigRantings, August 19, 2013
Congress Attempts to Implement Measures to Protect Immigrants from Notarios, ImmigRantings, September 27, 2013