Republican Congressman Demands Deportation of Migrant Family, Blames Kalispell Nonprofit for Arrival of Undocumented Immigrants

Elected officials on Thursday admonished the Biden Administration’s immigration policy following the arrival of a Venezuelan migrant family in Kalispell. Despite allegations from U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke that local nonprofit Valley Neighbors facilitated the relocation of the family, the organization said they had no role in bringing the immigrants to the valley.

By Denali Sagner
A U.S. Customs and Border Protection sign on the U.S.-Canada border faces Canada warning travelers from the north to proceed to an official port of entry on Nov. 5, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

After the arrival of a migrant family to Kalispell this week, Republican elected officials are calling for tighter immigration policy and the immediate deportation of the family, as well as casting blame on a local nonprofit group that provides support to immigrants and refugees in the Flathead Valley. While some officials publicly speculated the nonprofit paid to fly the migrants to Kalispell with the support of the Biden administration, the organization said it did not aid the migrants in traveling to the area.

Montana Republican U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke on Thursday issued a press release describing the arrival of a Venezuelan migrant family and alleging that Kalispell nonprofit Valley Neighbors of the Flathead aided the family in traveling to Kalispell — an allegation the nonprofit denies. Zinke’s office described the nonprofit as a “dark money” group with ties to the Biden administration.

Valley Neighbors is a volunteer-run 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that offers support to refugee and immigrant families in the Flathead Valley. According to tax filings submitted by the organization, it provides families with housing support, legal referrals and funding, medical and dental referrals, language services, educational support and transportation to meetings with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Helena.

According to Valley Neighbors Vice Chair Rebecca Miller, the organization has assisted “on an occasional and limited basis” in helping immigrants who have been released from immigration detention centers relocate to be with family members who already live in the Flathead Valley. The nonprofit has also worked to connect immigrants with sponsors in the Flathead Valley, occasionally providing travel expenses. However, Miller said, Valley Neighbors is not part of any government effort to “bus people in” to the Flathead and “had nothing to do with the family’s arrival” on Wednesday night.

“Dark money” typically refers to 501(c)(4) groups that spend money on political campaigns and do not disclose their donors. Valley Neighbors is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and does not contribute to political campaigns.

According to Flathead County Sheriff Brian Heino, a family from Venezuela arrived at the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office on Wednesday night after flying to Kalispell from New York. The family purportedly crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas before flying to New York and then Kalispell. Heino said they arrived at the sheriff’s office after being turned away at a local homeless shelter, which had no space. Valley Neighbors arrived to offer assistance and hotel accommodations shortly thereafter.

Following the arrival of the family, Zinke on Thursday sent a letter to U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas demanding DHS detain and deport the family. The letter included numerous questions for Mayorkas, including whether or not DHS had paid Valley Neighbors to help transport the family and what the department’s plan is to deport the individuals.

In response to the allegations by Zinke and others, Miller provided the following statement: “Valley Neighbors of the Flathead is a small community-supported nonprofit organization that provides humanitarian aid for immigrants in the Flathead Valley. As sometimes occurs, this week, we were made aware of an immigrant family in need after their arrival and responded by providing them assistance in accordance with our mission and the support of our community. We are saddened that our organization and the vulnerable families that we work with are being targeted and used for political gain through ill-informed and false statements made by some of our state’s elected officials.”

Heino on Thursday issued a two-page letter describing a recent increase in “contacts with individuals who have no residency status in the U.S.” The sheriff said his department has struggled to communicate with non-English speakers and to determine individuals’ identities and legal statuses during traffic stops and arrests.

“These, among many other challenges, cause deputies to spend significantly more time handling calls for service and are often unable to obtain a disposition acceptable to our community,” he wrote.

Heino also wrote that the increase in undocumented immigrants is “especially difficult” given the valley’s existing housing shortage and limited emergency resources.

“Our community has grown so fast and our resources have not,” he told the Beacon on Friday.

“I don’t blame anybody for wanting to come to the valley. It’s just, we’re maxed,” he said.

In the press release from Zinke’s office, Flathead County Commissioner Randy Brodehl described the arrival of the migrant family as “a continuation of a trend that has increased in both frequency and intensity over the last two years.”

The sheriff on Friday said the department could not provide exact numbers regarding interactions with undocumented immigrants. Brodehl said the county does not have any records or numbers of how many undocumented immigrants are in the area.

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol has reported 1.3 million encounters at the southern border since October 2023. Of the 1.3 million, 56% have been single adults, 39% have been members of a family unit and 5% have been unaccompanied minors. Republicans have accused the Biden administration of failing to address the influx of entrants at the border as major cities struggle to accommodate growing migrant populations.

Heino in his letter wrote, “Undocumented and illegal individuals are currently living in the Flathead, and many are working, often under the table, without contributing to the resources designed for those who work and live here legally. By working under the table, they are not paying into Social Security, workers’ compensation, state, or federal income taxes. They are allowed to utilize resources like Medicare, food stamps, housing assistance, and other resources designed to assist our legal citizens in our times of need.”

Under the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), a 1996 federal act that established restrictions on welfare access, undocumented immigrants are not eligible for federal public benefits including unemployment, retirement, welfare, disability, food assistance and public housing. PRWORA also bars undocumented immigrants from accessing most local and state public benefits. Exceptions include treatment under Medicaid for emergency medical conditions, immunizations and in-kind services delivered on the community level, such as food from soup kitchens or short-term shelters. Per federal law, undocumented minors are permitted to enroll in public schools.

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Correction: Due to incorrect information provided to the Beacon, a previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Valley Neighbors does not aid migrants in traveling to the area. Valley Neighbors offers assistance to migrants relocating to the area to reunite with family on “an occasional and limited basis,” and occasionally supports families relocating who have been connected with local sponsors. The story also indicated that Valley Neighbors receives no funding from the federal government. The organization receives a limited amount of funding from the U.S. Department of State.