Nobody really believes Montana is overrun by illegal immigrants.
Recent census figures estimate the state may be home to fewer than 11,000 noncitizens - and that includes legal residents with visas or green cards. One national Hispanic group estimates the state’s number of undocumented immigrants at about 5,000.
Although that’s less than 1 percent of the population, it’s still a problem for Rep. David Howard and supporters of a ballot issue aimed at denying illegal immigrants access to state services.
“If you’re an illegal person you can only live two ways: take a job from a Montanan or you have to live on the benefits that we provide,” says Howard, a Park City Republican. “I wanted to create an easy, logical process where our state agencies would go through and be able to create a deterrent for illegal immigrants getting Montana and federal tax money.”
No services ahead
LR-121 asks Montana voters to deny illegal immigrants a long list of services and opportunities. They could not apply for state jobs, or enroll in a state university, or apply for financial aid. They could not apply for state licenses, unemployment benefits, or rehabilitation services if they’re hurt on the job. They would not be eligible for state grants or services available to crime victims or people with disabilities.
Critics fear that, if passed, the measure will expose minorities to racial profiling and force the state to implement an expensive system of citizenship checks that could snare legal citizens along with illegal ones.
Howard’s idea originated in the state Legislature last session as one of seven bills aimed at combating what he sees as a nationwide immigration problem.
He says the measure won’t be difficult or costly to enforce. The names of residents who can’t produce a driver’s license as proof of citizenship would be run through a federal database - the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements - to determine their immigration status.
Montana’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union strongly opposes the measure, saying it would have unintended consequences. They say the database checks could result in citizens being denied services they’re entitled to and that they could delay applications for crucial services for hours or even months.
“The bill is error-filled,” says Niki Zupanic, an ACLU attorney. “It’s likely that (some) U.S. citizens will not show up in the databases.”
Kim Abbott, program director for the Montana Human Rights Network, says it’s up to the federal government to pass comprehensive immigration reform, not each state. She worries that enforcement of the measure will single out minorities.
“In order to avoid racial profiling and assumptions, the state needs to check everyone through SAVE,” Abbott says.
Howard says his measure would require checks on anyone who applies for services without the proper documents. Each state agency would decide which document or documents are valid for their services.
“Legal aliens can get benefits; nobody looks at your race,” Howard says.
It’s hard to say how many Montanans might not have driver’s licenses or other government identification documents.
A study by the Brennan Center for Justice in November 2006 found that 11 percent of all U.S. citizens lack government-issued IDs. Critics say many of those are poor or elderly or homeless - people often in need of services.
The cost for implementing the ballot measure is up for debate.
“It’s interesting, but if you look at the cost of the bill it was almost nothing there,” Howard says. “Agencies couldn’t even dream up a cost.”
State officials who estimated the measure’s potential costs came up with a figure of $85,915 for the first year and less afterward. But they said costs could easily change depending on the costs of searches, software, hardware and the hiring and training of personnel.
Howard insists that enforcing the measure won’t be difficult or costly. The effort, he adds, is worth it to prevent Montana from ending up like other states with immigration problems.
“It’s proactive, so we don’t wake up in ten years and say we should have done something,” Howard says. “I don’t deal in the ideal, I deal in reality.”
Howard is confident the measure will pass. A recent Lee newspapers poll of found that 57 percent of registered voters surveyed favored his ballot measure; 14 percent were undecided.