by Shahid Haque-Hausrath
LR-121 is a damaging and unnecessary legislative referendum that Montanans will be voting on this November. While its stated purpose is to deny a wide variety of state services to Montana residents who cannot prove that they are U.S. Citizens or lawful residents, it actually has implications for all Montanans, who will have to wade through additional red tape when applying for state services, whether it’s admission at any of our colleges, applying for a state license or permit, or even trying to get help as the victim of crime.
On the ballot, Montanans will simply be asked if they are: FOR denying certain state services to illegal aliens.  AGAINST denying certain state services to illegal aliens.
However, this question doesn’t express the real decision that Montanans are faced with, and Montanans may be surprised when they learn what they are actually being asked to buy into. To better determine voter intent, the referendum should ask if voters are: FOR requiring all Montanans to present proof of citizenship or lawful resident status before accessing state services, being screened through a costly federal database to confirm immigration status, and being reported to the federal government if information cannot be confirmed.  AGAINST invasion into privacy protections under the Montana Constitution, without a compelling basis as required by law.
Montanans value the privacy protections in our Constitution — protections that are greater than provided under federal law and most other states. That’s why we’ve fought back against attempts to create a national identification card, and led the nation in rejecting the federal REAL ID laws. In the interest of targeting undocumented immigrants (even anti-immigrant groups estimate there are only 5,000 in our state) this referendum would subject the State of Montana and its residents to far more sweeping requirements than REAL ID ever contemplated.
The bill would require employees of the State of Montana to serve as federal immigration agents, attempt to determine the citizenship or immigration status of all applicants for services, and deny these services to anyone who cannot present the required documentation. There are typically only two ways to prove you are a citizen: by providing a birth certificate or a U.S. passport. Many Montanans don’t have copies of their birth certificates, and don’t have passports. If you don’t have these documents, you will have to be screened through a federal database.
The referendum provides for use of a costly "pay-per-use" federal database to perform these checks. The federal database that is mentioned is the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (“SAVE”) system. The SAVE system is not free. The federal government charges between $.50 and $2.00 for each search in the system. The minimum cost is $.50. When you consider the numbers of applicants for state services, this will quickly become a significant expense. State agencies will also waste time and resources training employees on how to use this system, and will waste valuable time making these inquiries before allowing access to a wide variety of state services. In Georgia, the requirement to verify immigration status before issuing licenses and permits (which is also a requirement in LR-121) has brought the process to its knees.
But here is the kicker — there is no federal database that is designed for this purpose. The SAVE system is riddled with errors and also does not contain information about U.S. citizens, and E-Verify (another federal system) is restricted by law so that only employers who have made an offer of employment can check an employee — the state cannot use this to screen applicants for services.
The referendum mandates that state employees report you to federal officials if something doesn’t match up, which is going to happen quite often…and good luck getting the federal government to fix any errors you discover in the system.
The bottom line is that the State of Montana doesn’t need to be footing the bill for the federal government to do its own job, which is enforcing federal immigration laws.
For some more details about the history of the referendum, the state services that would be denied, and other implications of LR-121, please check out this resource by the Montana Immigrant Justice Alliance ("MIJA").