Though Montana shares a 545-mile long border with Canada, the question of what should be done on the U.S. southern border with Mexico is a big issue to many Republicans in the state.
In early March, the Yellowstone County GOP held its annual Lincoln-Reagan dinner, with the event’s theme: "Let's have a ball and build a wall!" It featured a fundraiser where attendees could buy “bricks” to erect a “wall” that was covered in graffiti like “DRUGS,” “ISIS,” “DACA,” “JOBS” and “HOMBRES.”
That night, the four men in the Republican Party’s primary hoping to run against Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester this fall all briefly addressed the crowd. But their short speaking slots didn’t allow for room to address how they’d like to see the United States address the issue of immigration, both legal and illegal.
The candidates are Big Sky businessman Troy Downing, former Billings judge Russ Fagg, state legislator and surgeon Al Olszewski and state Auditor Matt Rosendale.
All have said that immigration is a part of the history of the United States and will continue to be an important part of its future. They also want to see immigrants who will assimilate.
Earlier last week, Republican President Donald Trump signed a memo triggering National Guard troops to the southern border until his long-called-for wall is built. All four candidates have called for a wall to be erected, though Fagg has gone further to clarify he thinks it should be a physical wall in some places and use technology in others to monitor the border.
Fagg, who was a district court judge in Billings for 20 years, refers to his time on the bench to separate himself from the other primary candidates.
“I’m the only candidate running that has actually had illegal immigrants in front of me for court, in front of me for a felony criminal office. I’ve sentenced illegal immigrants and ordered them to go home and had the authorities contact Immigration Services,” Fagg said. “I do think I have a good perspective on this problem.”
Undocumented immigrants in the United States should be dealt with based on what they have done while here, Fagg said. Those who have broken the law should be sent home immediately, he said. For law-abiding people who are holding jobs, Fagg wants to make sure both employers and employees are paying taxes on their wages.
Fagg said he would like to see a Green Card system where people who are residents of other countries can migrate back and forth as long as they are working and paying taxes.
For those wishing to immigrate, he wants a merit-based system, calling that a “common-sense approach” that favors a path to citizenship for people who bring valuable skills, are educated and willing to contribute to the economy to the U.S. He also wants to see the group of people often called DREAMers, or people who were brought to the United States illegally as children, to go through that system to determine if they should stay in this country.
DREAMers take their name from the proposed Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, which Congress has not approved.
Olszewski said immigration is an issue that’s been “politicized and weaponized.”
“There are now a class of people who are in the middle of a battle between the conservative movement and the progressive movement, and that’s unfair,” Olszewski said.
Olszewski said he understands why people would want to cross into the United States over the southern border, equating it to “winning the Powerball lottery” for families fleeing bad situations. But he said that desperation leads to children and others being taken advantage of by smugglers or people who want to traffick young children.
In addition to a wall, Olszewski wants a metaphorical “narrow tunnel” for some well-vetted people to get through. Like other candidates, Olszewski said he wants a strong vetting of people who want to come to the United States and assurances that people who immigrate will also assimilate. But he also said he wants to know the health of people seeking to become citizens, saying the United States now has a number of new infectious diseases from illegal immigrants.
Olszewski sees part of the solution to finding illegal immigrants by using the federal E-Verify, a web-based system that lets employers confirm whether their employees are eligible to work in the United States, Olszewski said. He said that protects both the employer and the employee.
When looking at the DREAMer population, Olszewski said he could support finding a legal status that is temporary but renewable, and based on the person’s ability to retain work and not break any laws.
Downing said he doesn’t want to see any action taken with DREAMers until the United States refines and finalizes an approach to immigration under Trump.
“Delayed action, it doesn’t mean no action,” Downing said. “We need to have a comprehensive immigration policy and then we need to start applying that. I’m sorry if the DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] group don’t meet the criteria for what we decide we need to do for immigration, but we need to start dealing with those as a group as well.”
Downing’s concerns about southern border crossings focused on methamphetamine, which has seen a resurgence in Montana in the last few years.
“It’s not being cooked in somebody’s bathtub. That’s coming up from Mexico,” Downing said.
The issue of undocumented immigrants currently in the United States needs to be dealt with, but only after “stopping the leaking,” Downing said.
“Let’s stop people from getting here and then let’s get rid of the people that are doing bad. Let’s come up with some comprehensive ideas on how many, what the criteria is for legally immigrating to the U.S. and let’s deal with all those problems and then let’s start to talk about the next part.”
He said an approach for legal immigration needs to include a close look at who wants to move to the United States, including looking at their home countries.
“There are people that are trying to harm us and we need to make sure when we have people that are coming from areas particularly hostile to the U.S., we need to understand who they are," Downing said. "We need a high level of confidence that people coming here are not coming here to harm us. .... Let’s not say keep everybody out, but understand what a reasonable immigration policy is.”
Rosendale turned many of his comments on immigration toward what he calls the failures of Tester and former President Barack Obama.
“The root of the problem is that President Obama and Jon Tester ignored the law that was in place for the last decade and they allowed illegal immigrants to enter our country,” Rosendale said.
According to the website Politifact, unauthorized immigration fell during the administrations of both Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush.
Rosendale said that the United States needs to focus on first securing the border with Mexico by building a wall, then identifying people who are in the country illegally. Anyone who is here illegally and has committed a crime needs to be deported immediately, he said. The next priority is finding people who have overstayed visas and sending them back to their country of origin.
For people who want to legally immigrate, Rosendale said there needs to be more discussion about how the process should look.
“I am more than glad to sit down and have that conversation,” Rosendale said. “It certainly seems to me we would like to bring in the best and the brightest individuals here to participate in this republic. I am more than glad to sit down and have a conversation about what is the best way to screen and determine the number of individuals that we should be allowing to come into our country.”