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MT lawmakers debate testimony on race during 'sanctuary city' hearing

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Posted at 9:32 AM, Jan 27, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-27 11:34:04-05

HELENA — Montana lawmakers argued Tuesday over what type of testimony should be allowed, as they held a hearing on a bill seeking to block sanctuary cities in the state.

The House Judiciary Committee heard testimony on House Bill 200, sponsored by Republican Rep. Ken Holmlund of Miles City.

The bill would prohibit state and local governments from putting in “sanctuary policies,” which means a general policy of refusing to provide another government with information about someone’s immigration status or refusing to comply with federal requests to detain someone for possible immigration violations.

Governments that enacted sanctuary policies would be subject to a $10,000 fine every five days they were out of compliance, and they would be unable to receive certain state grants or support for infrastructure projects.

Holmlund acknowledged there are currently no sanctuary cities in Montana, but said HB 200 is a proactive attempt to discourage them.

“Basically what we’re saying is, in the state of Montana, we do not want sanctuary cities,” he said.

Supporters of HB 200 raised concerns that not enforcing any law, including immigration laws, would lead to additional crime.

Opponents questioned the need for the bill and said it would create an added burden for local law enforcement.

During the testimony, two opponents of HB 200 began to refer to the issue of race – one saying specifically that the bill was based on racism.

Committee chair Rep. Barry Usher, a Republican from Billings, asked both to avoid that topic, saying immigration status, not race, was at issue.

“We’re not going down the rabbit hole of racism,” he said. “This bill is not about racism; this is about legal or illegal immigration.”

Democrats on the committee then objected, arguing the proponents of the bill had made similar statements and had been allowed to continue.

They particularly pointed to one supporter who said he had seen an immigrant neighborhood decline when people from Mexico moved in.

Rep. Derek Skees, a Republican from Kalispell, argued the testimony connecting HB 200 to racism shouldn’t be allowed because it was specifically assigning a motive.

“To subject us in the committee to something that’s off the bill – which is a violation of the rules – and second, to go down a road of supposition of what she thinks this bill was brought for, I still stick to my objection,” he said. “I don’t think this is part of this committee.”

But Democratic Rep. Laurie Bishop of Livingston said she disagreed with the chair’s decision.

”We have heard testimony in this committee from others that have made suppositions about the opposition, and made pretty broad statements that had no basis of fact and were not rooted in the legislation that was being brought,” she said. “So if that’s the criteria that you’re going to apply, it needs to be applied on all sides, consistently.”

The hearing continued, with Usher asking those speaking to continue to keep race out of their testimony.

HB 200 is very similar to another bill Holmlund sponsored in the 2019 legislative session, which passed both houses but was vetoed by then-Gov. Steve Bullock.

Holmlund noted that a Montana Supreme Court decision last year said state law does not give state or local law enforcement the authority to hold someone based on a federal immigration detainer request.

He said House Bill 223, sponsored by Republican Rep. Bill Mercer of Billings, would provide that authority. That bill will be heard in the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.