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Montana Supreme Court defies voters, rules to give illegals unemployment benefits

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Matt Volz | Hearld Courier

The Montana Supreme Court has barred state officials from reporting the immigration status of people seeking state services, striking down the last piece of a voter-approved law meant to deter people who are in the U.S. illegally from living and working in Montana.

The court's unanimous decision on Tuesday upholds a Helena judge's 2014 ruling in a lawsuit that the law denying unemployment benefits, university enrollment and other services to people who arrived in the country illegally was unconstitutional.

The justices went further, rejecting the one remaining provision that required state workers to report to federal immigration officials the names of applicants who are not in the U.S. legally.

"The risk of inconsistent and inaccurate judgments issuing from a multitude of state agents untrained in immigration law and unconstrained by any articulated standards is evident," Justice Patricia Cotter wrote in the opinion.

The Montana Legislature sent the anti-immigrant measure to the 2012 ballot, where it was approved by 80 percent of voters. The new law required state officials to check the immigration status of applicants for unemployment insurance benefits, crime victim services, professional or trade licenses, university enrollment and financial aid and services for the disabled, among other things.

The law required state officials to deny services to people found to be in the country illegally, and to turn over their names to immigration officials for possible deportation proceedings. The law used the term "illegal aliens," which is not found in federal immigration laws and became the focal point of the lower and higher courts' rulings.

It defined "illegal alien" as a person who is not a U.S. citizen who unlawfully entered or unlawfully remained in the United States. In the lawsuit brought by the Montana Immigrant Justice Alliance, several plaintiffs said they arrived in the U.S. illegally but have since obtained permanent residence status.

They argued they would still be considered "illegal aliens" under the state law, even though the Department of Homeland Security considers them lawful immigrants.

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