House Judiciary Committee Chair Barry Usher, R-Billings.
A minister and a rabbi were both stopped from testifying Tuesday for bringing up racism and race during testimony on a bill that would ban sanctuary cities in Montana.
“I don’t want this hearing to be about race,” said House Judiciary Chair Barry Usher, R-Billings, after the Rev. Laura Jean Allen testified on the bill. “We have not had any major complaints across the state of Montana about the rhetoric that’s going around the country.”
House Bill 200, sponsored by Rep. Kenneth Holmund, R-Miles City, would prohibit “sanctuary cities” in Montana and fine localities that did not comply with federal immigration policies.
Sanctuary cities provide certain protections for undocumented immigrants against deportation. Montana has no sanctuary cities.
Opponents of the bill argued in part that it would erode the trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve as well as harm some of Montana’s most vulnerable populations.
Those in favor said it was necessary for public safety and to control legal immigration. Similar bills were introduced in 2017 and 2019, but both failed.
One of the opponents was Rabbi Laurie Franklin, who testified the bill was grounded in white supremacy — a comment that provoked a point of order from Republican Rep. Derek Skees of Kalispell and a response from Usher.
“White supremacy is a problem in Montana,” Franklin said in an interview after the hearing. “Anything that encourages white supremacy in Montana is a danger to not just Jews but to anyone with black or brown skin or who speaks another language, so I think this [type of legislation] is a real concern.”
The bill is one of many that GOP lawmakers have introduced as they rush to move forward on passing conservative policies and capitalize on having a Republican in the governor’s office for the first time in 16 years. The committee did not take action on the bill Tuesday.
Testimony from both the Rev. Jean Allen, senior minister at Helena’s First Christian Church, and Rabbi Franklin, with the Har Shalom congregation in Missoula, were halted because they mentioned race, which Usher said was not related to the bill.
Earlier, during proponent testimony, a supporter of the bill testified that he was dislocated from his Massachusetts neighborhood after “mostly Mexican” immigrants moved in, ruining his quality of life.
Allen and Franklin were two of the six opponents who testified against the bill.
“As a white woman … when I am pulled over, my greatest fear is that I will be ticketed. Not that I will be hurt or killed or deported. Most people of color in our country …,” Allen said before being interrupted by Usher who told her to stay focused on the bill.
“We’re not going down the rabbit hole of racism, because there are immigrants from all over the world that are every color on earth, and we’re not doing racism in this hearing,” Usher said.
Allen said Usher spoke to her in the hallway and explained why he shut her down and told her she could finish up her testimony during questioning if she avoided the topic of race, which she did.
However, in an interview after the hearing, Allen said, “If you look at the issue of immigration, I don’t know how you can divorce that from race. I think I was shut down because it was an uncomfortable conversation, not because it wasn’t relevant to the topic.”
Franklin was interrupted twice by Rep. Skees, when she used the term “white supremacy.”
Democrats argued that Usher needs to be consistent in allowing people to express their opinions. Republicans, on the other hand, said the comments regarding racism were supposition, not related to the bill and therefore should not be allowed.
Rep. Laurie Bishop, D-Livingston, said the committee has heard previous testimony where people made broad statements and shared opinions that were not related to the legislation being heard.
“If that is a criteria that you’re going to apply, it needs to be applied on all sides consistently,” Bishop said. “I think it’s actually going to bind you, and it’s going to bind the people who want to in good faith show up and provide their opinion to this committee.”
Franklin and Allen said this is the first time their testimony had been shut down like that. Both Allen and Franklin were told to submit their testimony in writing.
None of the four testimonies in support of the bill were shut down. Former Montana resident Mark Limesand spoke uninterrupted for five minutes about how he had to move out of his community because as more immigrants, “mostly from Mexico,” moved into his neighborhood his quality of life went down.
“Their was litter everywhere and people would be blazing their music at 5 a.m.” he said.
Limesand also brought up race when he blamed “cities burning this summer” on the Black Lives Matter movement.
“It’s no different than why our cities were burning this summer with BLM and other things because when you start pretending people don’t have to follow the small law, they’ll stop following bigger laws,” Limesand said.
Usher did ask one supporter to wrap up his testimony when he reached his time limit.
The committee will hear House Bill 223, titled “Create statutory authority for sworn law enforcement officers to hold aliens” Wednesday.
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