GOP Chair Shuts Down Testimony Opposing Sanctuary City Ban

Committee Chair Rep. Barry Usher, R-Billings, refused to hear testimony that mentioned racism

By Tristan Scott

HELENA — Montana House Judiciary Committee Republicans cut short the testimony of two opponents of a bill that would ban sanctuary cities in the state during a hearing Tuesday after they said the bill reinforced white supremacist views.

Committee Chair Rep. Barry Usher, a Republican from Yellowstone County, said the bill banning sanctuary cities was not related to race. He refused to hear testimony that mentioned racism.

Montana does not currently have any sanctuary cities. Bill sponsor Rep. Kenneth Holmlund, R-Miles City, said the bill is needed to preempt problems created by sanctuary cities in other parts of the country.

The bill would require local law enforcement to comply with federal immigration law and empower the state’s attorney general to pursue civil action against local jurisdictions that do not comply — including fines and withholding state grant funds.

The bill’s supporters said it would prevent Montana cities from harboring criminals. Opponents said that view enforced false perceptions of immigrants and could expose Montana cities and towns to lawsuits.

Reverend Laura Jean Allen, senior minister at First Christian Church in Helena, said the bill would foster distrust of law enforcement in a time of greater tension between police and communities of color.

“As a white woman, I have been conditioned throughout my lifetime that police have my best interest in mind and can be trusted. When I am pulled over, my greatest fear is that I will be ticketed, not that I will be hurt, killed or deported,” Allen said, before Usher cut her testimony short and asked her to submit her testimony in writing rather than deliver it to the committee.

“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 and we’re not doing racism in this hearing,” Usher said.

Rabbi Lauri Franklin, who spoke on behalf of the Montana Association of Rabbis, said the bill is driven by “white supremacy, bigotry and hatred.”

“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 her testimony was interrupted Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, who said her testimony was not directly related to the bill being discussed.

Franklin was later allowed to proceed with her testimony but was interrupted again by Skees, at which point Usher requested Franklin submit the remainder of her testimony in writing.

Franklin said that the Jewish community is “particularly aware of the effects of anti-immigrant rhetoric.”

“This bill is not only dangerous for those who might be immigrants, or people who speak another language, or have black or brown skin. It’s bad for Jews in Montana,” she said. “It sustains and promotes a philosophy of othering, of fear and hatred of those who don’t look like the so-called white majority or don’t attend the same houses of worship.”

The hearing came as Republican lawmakers attempt to advance the measure after it failed to be signed into law during the two previous legislative sessions.

In 2019, former Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock vetoed a measure seeking to ban sanctuary cities, saying the bill is “a solution searching for a problem.”

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.