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Does Montana have an unauthorized worker problem?

Molly Priddy of the Community News Service has written a good article on the immigration legislation proposed in Montana this legislative session.  The original article is located here.

Do we have an illegal worker problem?
by Molly Priddy, Community News Service
Wednesday, March 18, 2009

As the state’s economy stumbles, some lawmakers fear a new threat to Montana’s businesses and workers: illegal immigrants.

Nobody really knows how many undocumented immigrants live and work in Montana, but everyone agrees the number is tiny, perhaps less than half of 1 percent of the population.

Regardless, several immigration bills have quietly passed the Senate, where sponsors fear an imminent explosion of illegal workers and want laws to punish those who hire or protect them. Opponents fear racial discrimination and profiling.

Sen. Jim Shockley, R-Victor, and a sponsor of several immigration bills, said his focus is on those who hire illegal workers. “It’s all about ‘illegal,’” he said.

Illegal immigrants themselves are not the “bad people,” he said, but they do get exploited by employers who pay below minimum wages and dodge paying for overtime, benefits and workers’ compensation.

“How can an honest employer compete with somebody who’s cheating?” Shockley said. “It’s about wages and jobs.”

But Jamee Greer of the Montana Human Rights Network said the bills are offensive and unnecessary.

“They’re institutionalizing fear in an ‘other,’” Greer said. “There’s not an illegal immigrant problem in Montana. It’s just one of those perennial things that keeps coming from the right.”

Sen. Christine Kaufmann, D-Helena, said the immigrant bills are part of a conservative national agenda.

“All of these bills are pieces of a national model that is put out by anti-immigrant groups,” Kaufmann said.
She said the legislation is essentially racist because it creates fear and discrimination toward dark-skinned people.

“I don’t think anyone here is racist,” Kaufmann said of her Senate colleagues. “But (the bills) are part of a racist agenda.”

National census data estimate between 4,000 and 5,000 immigrants in Montana, documented and undocumented. Shahid Haque-Hausrath, an attorney in border-crossing law in Helena, said precise numbers on undocumented immigrants are impossible to find, but Montana’s numbers are minuscule compared to other states.

Small or not, Sen. Gary Perry, R-Manhattan, who is also sponsoring several immigration bills, said Montana could soon see an increase in illegal immigration.

“We are already experiencing problems here in Montana,” Perry said, “particularly with illegal aliens working around Big Sky in Gallatin County.”

Those illegals, typically construction workers, give their employers an unfair marketplace advantage, Perry said.

“It’s important to take steps before the problems of Southern California arrive in Montana,” he said.
But Haque-Hausrath, who works with the Gallatin County immigrant workers, said they are largely documented laborers brought in on work visas. He agrees that the companies that bring in foreign labor should be scrutinized but said workers should not be penalized.

“By redirecting everything at undocumented immigrants, you’re sidestepping the issue,” he said.

The Senate immigration bills take different approaches. Shockley’s Senate Bill 381, which passed 26-24, would train state employees and law enforcement to help federal officials enforce federal immigration laws.

That’s necessary because federal immigration employees in Montana are few, Shockley said.
“We can’t afford to hire immigration officers to do it,” he said.

But Haque-Hausrath said the proposed legislation would invite racial profiling. Local police trained to enforce immigration laws would have difficulty deciding whom to pull over or ask for papers, he said.

“An undocumented driver doesn’t look any differently than a documented driver,” Haque-Hausrath said. “It’s going to require them to skirt the edges of racial profiling.”

Shockley’s Senate Bill 382 would prohibit state and local governments from enacting policies that inhibit federal investigations into individuals’ immigration status.

Two of Perry’s bills are still alive: Senate Bill 379 would allow the government to seize any property used to harbor or transport illegal immigrants, and Senate Bill 377 would prohibit Montana companies from taking tax deductions for any money paid to illegal immigrants. SB 377 passed 33-17.

Opponents to Perry’s and Shockley’s bills say they stem from national rhetoric that followed the Bush administration’s failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

Starting in 2003, members of Congress sponsored several bipartisan attempts to create a guest-worker program that would allow foreign workers to obtain visas for jobs that American employers could not otherwise fill.

But U.S. House Republicans replaced the guest-worker program with legislation to deport all illegal immigrants and make it a felony to help them. Conservatives also blocked legislation to help immigrants obtain citizenship. Comprehensive reform has proved elusive ever since.

Kaufmann supports national immigration reform but argues that human rights extend across borders as well.
“People have rights, not just citizens of a country,” she said.

Perry said the idea that racism motivates Montana’s legislation is “baloney”. “Is it not a valid reason that we should support federal laws in our own state?” Perry said. “There’s nothing racist about it.”

Shockley insisted his legislation isn’t aimed at immigrants but at the people who illegally employ them. He said he didn’t know about the conservative national movement until this session.

His bills reflect his personal views, he said, but added his staffer may have used information from conservative national organizations to write the bills.

“Some of this stuff probably came from those organizations,” Shockley said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad.” He also said it’s not uncommon for bills to be modeled on existing statutes.

Opponents contend both Shockley’s and Perry’s bills are nearly identical to those that can be found on the Web site of the Federation for American Immigration, which they consider an anti-immigration group.

It is unclear how the immigration bills will do in the House. SB 381 and SB 382 are in the House Judiciary Committee and have yet to be voted on.

Thanks to Jamee Greer for formatting and posting this on his blog.

SB 379 Back from the Dead?

On Wednesday, we celebrated the death of SB 379.  Given that the Senate voted to indefinitely table the bill, it seemed like a done deal.  The Bozeman Daily Chronicle headlined the death of the bill.  Nevertheless, it looks like Senate Republicans have been successful in resurrecting the bill.  It appears that yesterday, Senate Republicans took advantage of the absence of three Democrats (Sens. Squires, Jent and Windy Boy) to move that SB 379 be sent back to the Judiciary Committee for amendments.

This move was met with skepticism as to whether it is permitted under the procedural rules of the Senate.  Nevertheless, it appears that SB 379 will rear its head once more for a floor vote in the Senate.

At this point, we don’t know what amendments will be made.  However, we can guess that the amendments will remove the controversial forfeiture provisions of the previous bill, which would have allowed the state to seize property used to “transport, move, conceal, harbor, or shield” any undocumented alien.

There were many problems with this bill, and the forfeiture provisions were only one of them.  While these forfeiture provisions were clearly over the top, I find the human implications of the bill far more troubling.  I have a difficult time understanding how property interests can take precedence over the human suffering that would result from the bill.

I urge lawmakers to stick to their guns and vote against this bill when it reappears on the Senate floor.

Bozeman Daily Chronicle: “Immigration bills having a tough time in session”

Daniel Person of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle has published an excellent article on the state of immigration legislation in Montana:

HELENA – State-level attempts at immigration reform are receiving some support this session, but the Montana Legislature is still a frosty place to attempt a crackdown on undocumented workers in the United States.

The Senate on Wednesday thwarted a bill that would have criminalized a number of interactions with illegal aliens in Montana, including knowingly transporting illegal aliens into the state and concealing them from detection, in some cases making the transgressions a felony. The bill also would have allowed the state to seize property connected to the violation.

The Senate voted 29-20 against Senate Bill 379, sponsored by Sen. Gary Perry, R-Manhattan.

In failing to pass, Perry’s bill joined most other immigration bills introduced this session.

In the Senate, bills attempting to keep vehicle registration and some workers compensation away from undocumented workers have failed to gain traction. In the House bills introduced by Rep. David Howard, R-Park City, have also been defeated.

Perry’s frustration was evident after Wednesday’s floor vote.

“My impression is that we, overall, don’t seem to be as law abiding as I thought we were,” he said. “Perhaps it’s idealistic to think we obey our laws. Instead, for social liberalism, we ignore our laws.”

But not everyone is taking a negative view of the votes.

“The biggest problem across the board with these bills is the racial-profiling aspect,” said Shahid Haque-Hausrath, a lawyer in Helena who has been lobbying against the legislation.

He said all of the bills would have required state agencies and employers to do more to verify whether someone is lawfully in the country. That’s not as easy as some think, he said, and he fears that non-whites or people with accents would have to jump through more hoops for government services than others.

Of the 10 bills Haque-Hausrath has been tracking, only two have made it out of their chambers, with another still to have a hearing. He commended lawmakers for looking into the full implications of the bills.

“The problem is, the bills are fairly complex and immigration laws are fairly complex. (Lawmakers) are hearing from people who tell them immigrants are taking their jobs. But I think you’re getting a lot of people who read these bills more carefully,” he said.

The Montana Human Rights Network has also opposed the legislation. Jamee Greer, a lobbyist for the group, said he has seen opposition to the bills come from many sides.

“People are opposing these bills for a lot of different reasons – farmers and ranchers concerned about how this will impact their operations, small businesses concerned about how this will affect their family businesses, concerns about racial profiling,” he said.

Sen. Jim Shockley, R-Victor, has also introduced a number of immigration bills this session. He said two bills passed out of the Senate this session is two better than in 2007 and credited that to the Republicans having party control.

“The Democrats don’t want to do anything on illegal immigration,” he said.

Gary Perry’s SB 379 Dies in Montana Senate on Bi-Partisan Vote

The Montana Senate is to be commended for indefinitely tabling Senate Bill 379, which was sponsored by Senator Gary Perry.  While previous votes in the Senate on immigration bills were split on party lines, with Republicans voting almost unanimously in support of the anti-immigrant bills, this bill was voted down on a bi-partisan vote of 29-20.

We previously discussed this bill, which would have made it a state misdemeanor or felony to transport, move, conceal, harbor, or shield any alien in “reckless disregard” of the fact that they are undocumented.  It would have also make it a misdemeanor or felony to encourage an undocumented alien to enter or remain in the state without status.  Finally, the bill applied harsh forfeiture provisions that would allow the state to seize property belonging to anyone convicted under the law.

This bill had many problems — it would waste state resources doing the federal government’s job, its harsh penalties would make people reluctant to hire immigrants regardless of  their status, it would further segregate and drive our immigrant population into the shadows, and it would result in greater racial profiling.  While Democrats voiced concerns about all of these factors, it was the excessive forfeiture provisions that appeared to make the difference for the Republicans who voted against the bill.

I would like to especially commend Senator Joe Balyeat (R) for his thoughtful comments during floor debate.  Senator Balyeat recognized that while the sponsors of this bill may have intended to target people who “traffic” undocumented aliens for profit, the broad language of the bill would also punish people who shield family members.  When coupled with harsh forfeiture provisions that could allow seizure of a person’s home and property without a warrant, Senator Balyeat recognized that the bill was “over the top.”

The Montana Senate did the right thing by tabling this bill.  However, there is still much work to be done.

Two of the ten anti-immigrant bills that have been proposed this session have been transmitted.  In the coming days, SB 381 and SB 382 will be heard in the House.  Thus far, the House has killed every anti-immigrant bill that it has heard in Committee.  We can only hope that this trend continues, and will re-double our efforts to educate Legislators on the harmful effects of this legislation.