House gives first approval to sanctuary city ban as some lawmakers remain puzzled over link between racism and immigration

The bill will move to the senate if a vote on the third reading Wednesday passes

By: - February 2, 2021 7:59 pm

The Montana Capitol at Night (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

The intersection of racism and immigration once again controlled the discussion on a bill that would ban sanctuary cities in the state.

Rep. Marilyn Marler, a Democrat from Missoula, was first to stand in opposition to the bill on the house floor Tuesday. Halfway into her opposition, she was interrupted by Chairman Barry Usher, R-Billings, when she said the bill would encourage rhetoric around racial profiling.

“This puts local law enforcement officers in the position of enforcing immigration policy, which let’s face it, they’re not trained for,” she said. She added, “Montana relies on a person’s appearance, which can open the door for racial profiling.”

Usher objected to the comment: “This is bill is not about racism. It’s not about racial profiling … it has to do with what we want to allow our local municipalities to do.”

It wasn’t the first time Usher objected to some mentioning of race in the context of the bill. Usher, chair of the house judiciary committee, shut down the testimony of a rabbi and reverend for bringing up race.

The bill, sponsored by Miles City Republican Rep. Kenneth Holmund, would require local governments to share the immigration status of a detainee with federal immigration agencies and would withhold grant money or fine cities or counties that did not comply with the law.

It would also prohibit “sanctuary cities,” which provide certain protections for non-citizens against deportation. Montana has no sanctuary cities.

Advocates of the bill say that it is necessary for public safety and immigration enforcement — or to prevent local jurisdictions from protecting criminals who are in the country unlawfully.

Opponents argue it would further dissolve the trust between the police and the public they serve, and that it is not the job of local police to act as federal immigration officers.

The bill passed its first two readings on party lines 67-33, but not before a debate involving Nazis, Thanksgiving and racism took place on the floor.

If the bill passes its third reading Wednesday, it will move onto the Senate. A similar bill passed through the House and Senate in 2019 but was vetoed by former democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, who said the bill was unconstitutional. In his State of the State Address, Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte signaled that he would sign the bill.

“This is a proactive bill. By that I mean, currently we have no sanctuary cities in the state of Montana, but we don’t really want any,” Holmund said Tuesday.

Rep. Ed Stafman, a Democrat and rabbi from Bozeman, said he opposes the bill, in part because of the historical benefit of sanctuary cities.

“Sanctuary has been instrumental in ending slavery segregation and human rights abuses, such as the sanctuary offers runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad.”

He also argued that historically, the lack of sanctuary cities has been harmful. When trying to make the connection to Jewish people trying to escape Nazi Germany he was interrupted by Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, who was acting as temporary speaker of the house.

“There is nothing about Nazis or the railroad in this bill. Please stay on the language of the bill,” Skees instructed. “You’re linking (the bill) to a point in history that is very inflammatory, and it has nothing to do with the bill.”

Stafman responded: “With all due respect, Mr. Speaker, the lack of sanctuary in the United States in the 1940s sent 937 Jews to their death in Germany. That’s precisely what this bill is about.”

The back-and-forth between Skees and Stafman prompted Rep. Jonathan Windy, D-Rocky Boy, to speak up in opposition. “If anybody has issue with this Mr. Chairman, that’s me.”

Windy Boy is a member of the Chippewa Cree and Assiniboine tribes.

“There’s been sanctuary cities since the beginning of this so-called new country … my ancestors from the East Coast that welcomed those pilgrims … that place over there, Plymouth Rock, that was a sanctuary place that was celebrated in what we have on every Thanksgiving of every year,” he said.

But it was not just Democrats who were told to stick to the bill. Skees interrupted freshman Republican lawmaker Braxton Mitchell from Columbia Falls when he started reading headlines related to crimes committed by unlawful citizens.

The bill is one of two that has been heard this session that deal with local governments’ role in enforcing federal immigration.

House Bill 223, sponsored by Rep. Bill Mercer, would mandate detention officers hold detainees who are already in custody and are the subject of a Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainer request.

The bill had a hearing in the house judiciary committee on Jan. 27, but no executive action has been taken.

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Keith Schubert
Keith Schubert

Keith Schubert is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. Keith was born and raised in Wisconsin and graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2019. He has worked at the St.Paul Pioneer Press, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and most recently, the Asbury Park Press, covering everything from local craft fairs to crime and courts to municipal government to the Minnesota state legislature. In his free time, he enjoys cheering on Wisconsin sports teams and exploring small businesses. He can be reached by text or call at 406-475-2954 .