Immigration Enforcement Law Proposed in Montana

It’s not a magnet for undocumented immigrants. And that's just the way at least one Montana lawmaker likes it.

State Rep. David Howard, a Republican known well in Montana for his take-no-prisoners stance on illegal immigration, is determined to keep the state nicknamed “Big Sky Country” as the last place any undocumented immigrant would want to call home.

Howard is pushing a bill that calls on government agencies across the state to enforce federal immigration laws.

Howard told the Montana House Judiciary Committee on Monday that his bill, HB 50, ensures local governments will enforce immigration laws and not turn a blind eye to undocumented immigrants.

Howard said that some cities in other parts of the United States barred their police officers and other public agency workers from inquiring about immigration status. Montana, he told the committee, had to make sure it protected itself against that ever happening within its borders.

His measure, he said, would send a message a message to undocumented immigrants that they are not welcome in Montana.

“It creates a defense in wonderful Montana where they won’t come here … all this does is to protect Montanans,” he told the committee. His office did not return various attempts for comment from Fox News Latino.

Montana’s small foreign-born population is mainly Latinos, though many Canadians have settled there too. The Latino population is about 28,565, or 3 percent of the total state population, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

Howard’s move runs counter to trends across the nation that have seen a softening by Republicans on illegal immigration, as well as less clamor at the state level to pass immigration laws.

It creates a defense in wonderful Montana where [undocumented immigrants] won’t come here. That all this does is to protect Montanans.

— Montana Rep. David Howard

In 2011, 30 state legislatures introduced more than 50 bills similar to that of Arizona, which, among other things, calls on police to check the immigration status of a person they have stopped for another reason and whom they suspect of being in the country unlawfully.

But in 2012, after court challenges blocked parts of many such laws, and as public support for these measures waned, only five states – Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Rhode Island and West Virginia – considered immigration bills.

None were enacted, according to the National Council of State Legislatures.

On the political front in recent years, many GOP leaders adopted a hard-line position on illegal immigration that was similar to the one embraced by Howard’s in Montana. But after that approach – which dominated much of the Republican primary and debates – was blamed as a key reason for many Latinos walking away from the GOP, the party has softened its tone.

Many Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner, Ohio Republican, have pledged to soften their positions since the Nov. 6 election, in which the vast majority (71 percent) of Latino voters chose President Obama over the GOP challenger, Mitt Romney.

Echoing many other Republicans, Boehner said he would consider proposals for comprehensive immigration reform, which would include tightened enforcement as well as a pathway to legalization for certain undocumented immigrants.

Some Republican leaders expressed dismay over Howard’s proposal.

“It’s amazing that after everything we went through, after our terrible performance with Latino voters in the election, that you would still have some Republicans who would be willing to present this type of legislation,” said Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, a Washington, D.C.-based group.

“If it passes, it will not help the Republican Party.”

“Republicans who are pro-immigrant have to come forward and condemn those laws,” said Aguilar, a former Homeland Security Department official in the George W. Bush administration. “What killed us before was that Republicans who were pro-immigrant remained silent.”

Proponents of strict immigration measures praised Howard’s proposal.

“Rep. Howard’s bill ensures common sense state-federal enforcement practices for those of us who believe in the rule of law and the restoration of an immigration law that works,” said Dan Stein, director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, based in Washington D.C. “Americans are tired of paying for the same old political games designed to reward, promote and encourage illegal immigration. We applaud his efforts.”

Montana has taken on illegal immigration before; in November, voters approved a measure requiring proof of legal U.S. residency in order to receive public services. A measure similar to HB 50 cleared the state legislature two years ago, but former Gov. Brian Schweitzer vetoed it, calling it unnecessary in Montana.

Immigration advocacy groups in Montana say they are worried about Howard’s latest proposal, given the approval that voters gave to the referendum measure in November.

“Montana does not have an immigration problem,” said Shahid Haque-Hausrath, executive director of the Montana Immigrant Justice Alliance. “Montana is one of the states with the least number of immigrants – documented or undocumented.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.