Court Rules Montana's Voter-Approved Immigration Law Unconstitutional

June 25, 2014

A district court judge has ruled that enactment of the 2012 voter-approved law banning undocumented immigrants from accessing state services is pre-empted by federal law and is unenforceable.

Legislative Referendum 121, which would have required certain state agencies to certify through a federal database that people requesting services are United States citizens, was set to take effect Jan. 1, 2013.

More than 80 percent of Montana voters supported the law in the November 2012 general election.

The immigrants’ rights group Montana Immigrant Justice Alliance sued in December 2012 to block the law, arguing the measure violated U.S. citizens’ rights to privacy, due process and equal protection under the Montana and U.S. constitutions and was pre-empted by federal law.

On Friday, District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock of Helena, agreed with the plaintiffs and struck down significant portions of the law.

In an 18-page order for summary judgment, Sherlock ruled the mandates upon state agencies to determine immigration status and deny a wide variety of state services to “illegal aliens,” is pre-empted by federal law as an impermissible regulation of immigration.

“The Immigration and Nationality Act ... provides no definition for the term ‘illegal alien’ or the term ‘lawfully present,’” Sherlock wrote.

Sherlock wrote that by making up its own definition of “illegal alien,” the state is not only in a pre-emption conflict with federal law, but it also attempts to regulate immigration, which is prohibited by the Constitution.

“As noted by one court, state agents are unqualified and unauthorized to make independent determinations of immigration status,” Sherlock wrote. “Such determinations amount to immigration regulation that is pre-empted by the United States Constitution.”

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