HELENA — Eight men who entered the U.S. illegally but have since become permanent residents say a new Montana law wrongly puts them at risk of being denied services and treats them as second-class people.
The men from Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador told their stories in recent sworn statements in support of a legal challenge to the law, which was put to Montana voters last fall by Republican legislators and overwhelmingly approved.
The law requires proof of citizenship or legal standing from any applicant for state services, from unemployment and disability benefits to assistance for crime victims. If an applicant can't prove his legal status, the state agency is required to turn that person's name over to federal immigration authorities.
Agencies have not yet released any regulations on how they plan to enforce the law or how they will train employees to check for proof.
An immigration rights group and the state's largest labor union are asking a judge to block the state from applying the law and to strike down it down as unconstitutional. Among its problems, a Helena immigration attorney said Thursday, the law provides a definition for an "illegal alien" as someone who is not a U.S. citizen and who has unlawfully entered or remains unlawfully in the country.
So even if they have legal residency status now, people who entered the country illegally would still be considered illegal immigrants, Shahid Haque-Hausrath said.
"There are those people who think those who illegally entered the country should never be allowed to legalize their status," he said. "But these are people who went through the correct procedures to get their green cards."
They include Luis Alberto Alonzo, 42, who illegally entered the U.S. in 1989 and is the father of two developmentally disabled children, one of whom has cerebral palsy, is blind, has lung and heart damage and has seizures.
An immigration judge granted Alonzo permanent legal resident status in 2011, and he depends on state support to help his sons. But he is concerned that the new law will target him as an illegal immigrant again and he will be denied the services upon which he relies, he wrote in his affidavit.
"I don't know what I would do without that support. Finances are a constant struggle and I barely make ends meet," Alonzo wrote. "Now I must also deal with the threat that I will be denied state services because the state believes I am an 'illegal alien.'"
Another man, Mexican-born Mauricio Jimenez-Contreras, was granted permanent residency last year after entering the country illegally in 1999.
"Under this law, I would be treated like a second-class person and I would always feel like my options were limited because of the way I entered the country illegally," Jimenez-Contreras wrote.
Montana Department of Justice spokesman John Barnes did not have an immediate comment. But earlier this month, Montana solicitor general Lawrence VanDyke asked Judge Jeffrey Sherlock to dismiss the lawsuit.
In his request, VanDyke described the lawsuit as "speculative" because nobody has shown any real threat of an injury as a result of the law.
Disagreeing with the law or worrying about its possible effects are not grounds for a legal challenge, VanDyke wrote.
Haque-Hausrath said the affidavits prove that the risk is real to a segment of legal residents whom the law overlooks.
Sherlock has not ruled on the state's request to dismiss the case or the request to block the law made by plaintiffs Montana Immigrant Justice Alliance, Montana Education Association-Montana Federation of Teachers and Montana resident Alisha Blair.