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Bill Would Require Local Law Enforcement Cooperation With ICE


A policy to increase local law enforcement's role in federal immigration investigations in Montana is nearing Gov. Greg Gianforte’s desk. The state's Republican-led Legislature has passed the bill in both chambers and now it returns to the House after being amended in the Senate.

In 2018, a man named Agustin Ramon, a dual resident of Mexico and France, was arrested for burglary in Lincoln County, Montana. He tried to post bail and was denied. Federal immigration authorities wanted to determine if he was in the United States illegally. Federal law says Ramon should not have been detained for more than 48 hours. He spent the next two months in jail.

[KPAX News clip]: "In Lincoln County, the sheriff’s office is currently facing a lawsuit from the ACLU and the ACLU of Montana over a current inmate at the Lincoln County detention center."

The lawsuit that followed reached the Montana Supreme Court, which ruled in Ramon’s favor, making it clear that under Montana law, officers cannot arrest or keep a person in custody just because they are suspected of being in the country illegally.

Bill Mercer is trying to change that.

"I believe that there's a gap. And that's, that's what I'm trying to fill," he says.

Mercer is a former Associate U.S. Attorney General and represents Billings in the Montana state house. He authored a bill that would require local law enforcement, at the request of U.S. federal officials, to participate in immigration enforcement actions. That means arresting and/or detaining undocumented immigrants who are already in custody.

"The arrest authority, the way the bill is written, is not discretionary. It's mandatory."

Currently, local law enforcement has discretion. They can decide whether or not to detain a person when federal authorities request it. House Bill 223 would eliminate that local control.

By making cooperation with federal agents mandatory, Mercer, a Republican, hopes to remove that discretion. He says he doesn’t want laws selectively enforced.

"I want uniform enforcement across the state."

A detainer request is what it sounds like: a request filed by a law enforcement agency, like Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE], asking another agency to hold a person in question. 

Multiple local law enforcement and sheriff's offices in the state declined to comment for this story, saying they can’t speak for or against proposed legislation. A lobbyist for the Montana League of Cities and Towns has spoken in opposition to the bill because of the requirement it would add to officers' jobs.

Laurie Bishop, a Democrat from Livingston who sits on the House Judiciary Committee, thinks mandating these types of actions would be a mistake.

"They're powerless to be able to make their own judgement on it, but they are held accountable if they indeed got it wrong," Bishop says.

Requiring local law enforcement to participate in the enforcement of federal law worries Rep. Bishop about possible lawsuits.

"We've basically exposed them fully to the liability, and we've tied their hands behind their back to do anything to prevent it. And I find that super dangerous."

The ACLU of Montana’s legislative program manager, Sam Forstag, agrees.

"There is no crisis of illegal undocumented immigrants in Montana," Forstag says.

According to Forstag, studies show that immigrants are far less likely to commit every type of crime than native born citizens.

"There seems to be a belief that in some corners I know is genuine, and in some corners feels like more of a front, that enforcing these detainers is essential; sweeping up immigrants is essential to keeping us safe, because it prevents crime," Forstag says

Forstag and other opponents of the bill point to research from the Department of Urban Planning and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago to highlight their concerns that increased involvement of police in immigration could lead to an unwelcoming climate for immigrants and more distrust of law enforcement.

Mercer believes a large percentage of Montanans support federal immigration laws.

"I think Montanans would want their law enforcement authorities to be working cooperatively with the federal government. I think the public is probably very enthusiastic about the idea that illegal aliens are removed through detainers."

Kalispell Republican and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Keith Regier argued on the Senate floor this policy will help public safety. 

"You know it’s riskier for bystanders, for even for the targeted individual and for federal officers if ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] is forced to go into a community to apprehend an individual rather than just have a transfer of custody in a security environment of a detention facility."

Randall Caudle has been practicing immigration law for 25 years. He recently moved to Missoula from San Francisco and is now one of four immigration attorneys in the state. He’s worried the bill could lead to officials detaining people who are in the U.S. legally. 

"Someone's gonna detain a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident, or asylee that has legal status, and they're not going to release them. And it's going to be an illegal detention no matter how you look at it, under Montana law, under U.S. law."

House Bill 223 was endorsed by the House and Senate on near-party-line votes. It's awaiting another vote in the House after it was amended in the Senate. Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte, has not yet responded to a request for comment on the bill, but he has indicated he would sign into law a related bill prohibiting sanctuary cities in Montana.

Copyright 2021 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Erica Zurek