HELENA — Montana lawmakers tackled illegal immigration Friday, pushing forward a bill to ban illegal immigrants from receiving workers' compensation insurance benefits and hearing initial debate on a plan to turn to a federal immigration database before issuing Montana driver's licenses.
Staunch opponents to illegal immigration want the state to use that federal database to verify legal immigration status before issuing a driver's license.
Foes see ties to Real ID
Opponents of House Bill 178 argue the state would be subjecting its residents — and control of its identification — to a database that was central to the federal REAL ID program Montana overwhelmingly rejected.
Rep. David Howard, a Park City Republican and retired FBI agent, said his proposed bill is an extra safeguard that is needed to make sure only people in the country legally get a driver's license.
Other supporters said illegal immigrants affect national security and other issues.
Illegals 'slowly infiltrating the state of Montana'
"They are slowly infiltrating the state of Montana," said Art Ellison, who testified with other members of the American Legion in support of the bill. "All of the Western states are inundated with the illegal immigrants."
The Department of Transportation said it favors the bill. Right now its agents have to individually analyze complicated immigration documents to determine legality. Those agents could now rely on the "federal systematic alien verification for entitlements program."
Opponents said it is wrong to specify the use of the federal database in state law. They said it could be inaccurate, pointing to past problems in federal agencies, and lead to lengthy delays for Montanans legally requesting a driver's license.
Opponents say law won't work
The argued that no illegal immigrant who has to cross dangerous borders and risk everything to get into the country is going to be stopped by the threat of not being able to get a driver's license. The roads will be more dangerous because such immigrants won't have licenses or insurance under the plan.
The House Transportation Committee didn't take an immediate vote on the plan.
A different panel, the House Judiciary Committee, endorsed a measure to ban illegal immigrants from collecting workers' compensation benefits.
Hospitals will have to pick up tab
Backers of the proposal said it is needed to send a message to those wrongly employing illegal immigrants. Opponents countered that the workers will still get injured, and hospitals will be left picking up the tab for treating them in emergencies.
The politically charged arguments surround a perceived problem that could be very small — or even nonexistent.
Only eight claims found
The Montana State Fund reported to legislative staff that in 2010, it could only find eight claims out of more than 8,000 that had a suspicious Social Security number that may indicate an illegal immigrant.
Jorge Quintana, a Helena lawyer who said he is of Cuban ancestry and speaks Spanish, said he practiced for years as a prosecutor and only once ever came across an illegal immigrant needing a translator in the justice system.
"This is an out-of-state solution to a problem we simply don't have," Quintana said.