Judge strikes down Montana law requiring immigration checks for applicants for state services

A Montana judge struck down most of a 2012 voter-approved law requiring government officials to conduct immigration checks on anybody seeking services provided by the state — from unemployment benefits to crime-victim assistance.

The law, which aims to deny government jobs and assistance to people in the U.S. illegally, required Montana agencies to check legal status when a person applied for any state service. If the person was not in the country legally, the agency must turn over the name to federal immigration officials.

The ruling is the latest test of a law approved during a wave of immigration crackdowns nationwide. Last week, a federal judge in Utah upheld part of a 2011 law in that state that allows authorities to check the citizenship of those stopped for traffic infractions — within certain limits — but struck down other provisions, such as warrantless arrests on suspicion of immigration status.

In Montana, nearly 80 percent of voters approved the state's law in a 2012 referendum, but it has not been enforced since an immigration-rights group filed a legal challenge.

District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock of Helena said in his Friday order that it conflicts with federal immigration laws by attempting to regulate immigration, which is exclusively a federal power.

The law, known as Legislative Referendum 121, makes up its own definition of "illegal alien" that is not defined in federal law, Sherlock said. That means state officials would be making their own determination of immigration status, which should only be done by authorized federal agents, he said.

"This is the crux of the problem with the enactment," Sherlock wrote in the order.

Sherlock allowed one provision of the law to stand, saying it doesn't conflict with federal law. It requires state officials to report to immigration officials the name of a person who is not in the U.S. legally.

Attorney Shahid Haque-Hausrath, who challenged the law on behalf of the Montana Immigrant Justice Alliance, said the reporting provision shouldn't matter as long as the rest of the law is struck down.

"That shouldn't be of any significance because agencies won't be screening or asking any questions," Haque-Hausrath said Monday. "That was the heart of LR 121."

State attorneys just received the ruling Monday and no decision has been made on whether to appeal, Montana Department of Justice spokesman John Barnes said.