In 1968, Chris Chambers was born in Alberta to a Canadian mother and an American father. As a child, he moved to Montana, where he has remained ever since.
Though Chambers now lives and works in Hamilton and he inherited his father's American citizenship, he only has a Canadian birth certificate. As such, he worries about how Legislative Referendum 121 will affect him. Passed by voters last year, it prohibits "illegal aliens" from receiving state services, including vocational rehabilitation, public education and professional certifications.
"I am concerned that if I lose my job and need to apply for unemployment benefits, or need to access other state services, I may be wrongly denied because I can't prove my citizenship," Chambers says in one of several affidavits filed by members of the Montana Immigrant Justice Alliance, which in December filed a lawsuit against the state of Montana alleging that LR 121 is unconstitutional.
Helena District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock emboldened the plaintiffs last week, when he tossed the Montana Attorney General's request to dismiss the complaint. The attorney general's office argues that because the law hasn't yet been applied, the plaintiffs haven't been harmed and, therefore, lack standing.
While Sherlock found that the teachers union MEA-MFT and Alisha Blair, who has American and Canadian parents, could not participate individually in the suit, the judge disagreed with the state's overall premise, citing precedent that holds Montanans who are threatened with injury are entitled to file a complaint.
"This is a clear victory," says MIJA president Shahid Haque-Hausrath.
Sherlock's decision means that the state is now compelled to explain how it intends to implement LR 121, a question that, Haque-Hausrath argues, has gone unanswered.
"There really is a risk that the law will be implemented by racial profiling," Haque-Hausrath says.
Haque-Hausrath notes that LR 121 has provoked significant fear among the state's immigrants. It's also scary for people like Chambers, citizens by birthright who can't prove it. "There is a lot of fear," he says, "a lot of trepidation about LR 121."
The attorney general's office did not respond to requests for comment about the suit.