Judge hears arguments in Montana immigrant law

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HELENA, Mont. (AP) - The Montana attorney general’s office and an immigrant-rights group asked a judge Wednesday to bypass a trial and decide himself whether to uphold a law approved by voters in 2012 that requires immigration-status checks for anybody seeking state services.

The law requires Montana officials to check whether a person is legally in the country before providing services from unemployment insurance benefits to state jobs. If the not person is not in the country legally, the state agency must turn over the name of the person to federal immigration officials.

The Montana Immigrant Justice Alliance is challenging the law, saying it is overly broad and could target a broad swath of immigrants who are in the U.S. under different circumstances. The law is not about who should receive or be denied state services, alliance attorney Shahid Haque-Hausrath said in a court hearing Wednesday.

“It’s about … finding out who’s illegally here and getting them to leave the state of Montana,” Haque-Hausrath said.

In response, Montana Solicitor General Lawrence VanDyke said federal law allows the states to require immigrants to prove their eligibility and they can be reported to federal immigration officials for any reason.

Both sides told District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock that they did not believe a trial was necessary and they would accept a ruling from him. The judge said he would consider the arguments and issue a decision as soon as he could.

Nearly 80 percent of voters approved the law in November 2012, but it has not been enforced since taking effect. Supporters said it would prevent immigrants in the country illegally from obtaining services and prevent them from taking jobs at a time of high unemployment.

The lawsuit was filed the following March.

Haque-Hausrath said the definitions used in the law, such as an “illegal alien” being a person who “remains unlawfully in the country” are not defined in federal immigration laws, he said. Rather, there are multiple classifications for immigrant status, such as “qualified alien” and “authorized alien,” that account for the complexity of the federal immigration laws.

But one section of federal law that deals with benefits for immigrants uses a phrase similar to “remains unlawfully in the country,” and refers to those classifications, VanDyke said.

Why can’t the state do the same thing?, VanDyke asked. The voter-approved initiative requires compliance with federal laws, and it will be up to the individual state agencies to make sure they do, he said.

“Don’t strike this law down because immigration law is complicated,” he told Sherlock.

Both sides also argued whether state agencies could use the federal Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) program to run the eligibility checks. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security describes the SAVE program as a service to help agencies determine the immigration status of benefit applicants so only those entitled to benefits receive them.

Haque-Hasrath argued that SAVE only checks for benefit eligbility, not whether a person is lawfully present in the U.S. VanDyke countered the fee-based program was created for government agencies to check immigration status when checking benefits.

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