Profiling or prudence? 

Controversial ballot referendum targets illegal immigrants

When it comes to illegal immigration in Montana, state Rep. Champ Edmunds likes to use the analogy of a burglar breaking into someone's house while the homeowner opts to feed, clothe and provide for the intruder.

"Most people would say that's crazy," says the Missoula Republican. "But when somebody gets into our country or our state illegally, we somehow feel this obligation to provide services to them. That's crazy. We need to provide a ticket to them—a ticket back to wherever the heck they came from."

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • State Rep. Champ Edmunds, R-Missoula, backs LR-121, a measure that would deny specific state services to illegal immigrants and establish stricter procedures to determine a person’s citizenship status.

Next month, Montana voters get a chance to punch that ticket. Legislative Referendum 121 seeks to deny specific state services to people who are illegally residing in the state and establish stricter procedures to determine a person's citizenship status. The referendum appears on the Nov. 6 statewide ballot.

Claudia Stephens, strategic planning specialist for the Montana Migrant and Seasonal Farmworker Council, says the referendum would be a drain on state resources based on what she calls a non-issue.

"I don't believe we have a large population of people that are here illegally," Stephens says. "So we're talking about wasting our representative's time and wasting money on a bill that is not necessary.

"I think that it encourages xenophobia," she continues. "I think that it is an opportunity for unscrupulous people to prey on other people's fears."

Edmunds, a Republican who seeks re-election this year against Democratic challenger Dave Andrews, says he agrees that there is not a substantial population of unlawful citizens in Montana right now. Nevertheless, the referendum would provide a safeguard against anybody who might enter the country illegally from Canada—a border Edmunds considers more vulnerable than the Mexican border.

"I don't think it would be a cost to the state," he says. "I think it will be a saving to the state, because we're no longer providing services to illegal aliens that shouldn't be getting them in the first place. So it would be a net gain."

The ballot referendum outlines that citizens who seek specific state services, such as license applications, unemployment and disability benefits or financial aid for university students, must provide proof of their lawful status. That proof would then be verified through a federal database. Food stamp benefits and Medicaid would not be affected.

The referendum was co-sponsored by Rep. Jim Shockley, R-Victor, and David Howard, R-Park City, and is based on Montana House Bill 638. Edmunds is among those who voted for the bill last session.

LR 121 resembles similar laws that have passed recently in other states. In Georgia, a law requiring anyone seeking professional licenses to prove their citizenship went into effect at the beginning of the year. As an unintended consequence, however, the state is reportedly experiencing a log jam in license applications, and the application process has gone from taking days to complete to over a week in order to determine lawful status.

A similar law also passed in Alabama this year, but has been delayed pending review by federal courts.

Kim Abbott, organizing director for the Montana Human Rights Network, says most of the laws read similar to model legislation rolled out nationwide by conservative interest groups, such as American Legislative Exchange Council and the Federation for American Immigration Reform. "These things aren't Montana ideas," she says. "They come from elsewhere."

Abbott also cautions of an increase in racial profiling if LR 121 passes. "In terms of immigrant members of our communities, it is meant to scare them and it will likely have the intended effect," she says. "It could prevent people from reporting crimes, seeking medical help or coming forward as witnesses. This makes our communities less safe."

Edmunds, again, takes the opposite side. He says racial profiling is a tool that has been taken away from people who would use it to protect the country against terrorists and illegal immigrants, and suggests law enforcement would not abuse the practice.

"Terrorists are typically of Middle Eastern descent between the age of 18 and 35," he says. "So why wouldn't you check every person that is of that make-up coming through that airport, rather than stopping this 80-year-old lady or a 2-year-old child? I mean, that's crazy. So we've gone to the opposite end of the spectrum with this, trying to avoid looking like we're racially profiling. For crying out loud, let's use some common sense."

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