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Judge overturns Montana law requiring immigration checks for state services

By Laura Zuckerman

(Reuters) - A Montana judge struck down a law requiring proof of legal immigration status to seek state services, saying the measure approved by Montana voters in 2012 tramples on the federal government's mandate to decide on immigration matters.

The law, approved by more than 80 percent of Montana voters in 2012, barred state agencies from providing everything from crime victim services to unemployment benefits to illegal immigrants.

A spokesman for Montana Attorney General Tim Fox, who defended the law, said his office received the written order by Montana District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock on Monday and would decide within 60 days whether to appeal.

The Montana Immigrant Justice Alliance, which brought the challenge, hailed Sherlock’s ruling as yet another sign that “states don’t have any business regulating federal immigration policy,” alliance President Shahid Haque-Hausrath told Reuters.

Sherlock found the Montana statute unlawfully sought to usurp federal authority, from denying services like enrollment at state universities to creating the legal term “illegal alien” to describe those living unlawfully in the United States, a term that does not exist in federal law.

“There is no doubt that the power to regulate immigration is exclusively a federal power,” Sherlock wrote in the ruling.

The ruling comes as a number of U.S. groups push for policy reform to allow the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States to obtain a pathway to citizenship, even as many Republicans complain the federal government is not doing enough to secure the country's southern border.

In his decision, Sherlock said that, unlike Montana, the majority of states that have approved legislation seeking to restrict benefits to illegal immigrants have deferred to the federal determination of status.

But Sherlock sided with the state in finding the constitutional right to due process was not violated by a requirement in the Montana law that applicants for state services who are found to be living in the country unlawfully be reported to U.S. authorities.

“Here, all that is required of the state officials is that they make a report of their suspicions to the federal government. Any procedural or substantive due process considerations would arise as a result of any action taken by the federal government,” Sherlock said.

Haque-Hausrath said the immigrant advocacy group no longer perceives the reporting requirement as an infringement since the court decision prohibits the state from independently determining immigration status.

(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Beech)

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