Immigrants’ Lawsuit Against Initiative to Proceed

By Beacon Staff

HELENA — A state judge will hear an immigrant-rights group’s challenge of a voter-approved law requiring proof of citizenship or legal standing from applicants for state services.

The law, approved by nearly 80 percent of Montana voters in November, requires state agencies to turn over the names of people who can’t prove they are in the country legally. Nobody has been denied services under the new law and the state has not yet said how it will be enforced.

The Montana Immigrant Justice Alliance says the law infringes on the right to privacy, due process and equal protection, and would unfairly harm people who entered the country illegally but have since gained legal status.

State attorneys asked District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock to dismiss the case, saying nobody has been injured or threatened by the law.

Sherlock ruled Wednesday that the alliance was within its rights to file the lawsuit because the initiative was designed to affect its members, and their concerns are reasonable.

The judge compared the case to that brought by gays in the 1990s challenging a state law that made homosexual sex illegal. The law was not enforced, and there was no sign or indication it would be applied against them, but the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional and struck it down.

The immigrant-rights group’s members are facing a similar situation, Sherlock said in his order. The reasonable fear of prosecution is enough to grant them standing to bring a lawsuit, Sherlock ruled.

Also, ruling to dismiss the case would prevent the referendum from a judicial review, and “clearly the people are interested in seeing whether the referendum will be upheld by the courts,” Sherlock said.

However, Sherlock dismissed two other plaintiffs from the lawsuit, a teachers’ union and a woman who was born in Canada and has one parent who is a U.S. citizen.

The MEA-MFT said it joined the lawsuit because it was concerned about its members being asked to implement the new law. Alisha Blair said she had no documents proving she was a U.S. citizen and worried she would not be admitted to the University of Montana.

Sherlock ruled the union’s concerns were speculative and Blair’s concerns abstract.

Montana Immigration Justice Alliance attorney Shahid Haque-Hausrath called the ruling a victory and said Blair’s concerns will still be addressed as a member of the alliance.

Now the state should be required to answer several questions, such as who is going to implement the law and how they plan to do it, Haque-Hasrath said Thursday.

Attorney general spokesman John Barnes said in a statement that the state is pleased the MEA-MFT and Blair were dismissed from the lawsuit, and will continue to defend the law.

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