HELENA – Montana may be far from the U.S. southern border, but the issues of immigration and national security still loom large in the state’s 2018 races for U.S. House and Senate – particularly for the Republican candidates.
Republican U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, who’s running for a second term, and Republican Matt Rosendale, who’s challenging Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, often lead with these issues, calling them a top priority and chastising their opponents as soft on immigration.
“Jon Tester has supported sanctuary cities and open borders and amnesty and that is something that the people of Montana do not support,” said Rosendale in a typical comment.
Tester and Gianforte’s Democratic challenger, Kathleen Williams, say the claims against them are simply false and are part of a phony narrative the GOP is using as cookie-cutter attacks against Democratic candidates.
“Once again, (Rosendale) lives in a different universe and just makes up information that’s his agenda,” Tester told MTN News in a recent interview.
Tester notes that the U.S. Border Patrol’s union has endorsed him, citing his strong support for border security and the resources they need to keep the border secure.
“That’s the same group that endorsed (President) Trump,” he said.
In a meeting with supporters last month, Gianforte said “making our communities safer” has been one of his top priorities as a congressman.
“That started with rebuilding our military, because it’s been starved for quite a while,” he said. “It’s also important that we secure the border.”
He talked about his vote for an increased military budget, including a substantial pay raise for military personnel, and his support for President Trump’s “four pillars” of immigration reform: Building a wall on the southern border, ending the visa “lottery” for immigrants from specific countries, moving to a merit-based immigration system and finding a path to citizenship for young adults brought here as children by illegal immigrant parents (“dreamers”).
“I’m a fan of legal immigration,” he said. “But we need to end this illegal immigration, because it has a negative effect in our communities. It’s putting crime across the border.”
Gianforte voted in June for a pair of immigration-reform bills that contained elements of those proposals. Both failed in the House.
His first campaign TV ad against Williams also attacked her as an ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and someone who supports “open borders and amnesty.”
“I don’t know where he got that,” Williams told MTN News in a recent interview, noting that she has said publicly that, if she wins, she won’t support Pelosi as speaker.
“I support strong borders that function for trade and tourism, that are strong against illegal trafficking of drugs, humans and weapons,” she said.
Williams said she does believe that the “dreamers” should have a path to citizenship, and that U.S. immigration policy “should have some compassion” as well.
She also has criticized President Trump’s foreign policy as “inconsistent,” and said his erratic actions and statements are undermining long-standing alliances and democratic principles.
When Rosendale blasts Tester on immigration policy, he does offer some specifics: Tester’s votes against bills aimed at punishing “sanctuary cities,” his vote for a comprehensive immigration bill in 2013 and his support for proposals this year that opponents say would lead to letting immigrant law-breakers off the hook.
He also said that Tester has been an “obstructionist” by opposing funding for Trump’s proposed wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
“I hear Jon saying these things, but he has not supported the president when the president is trying to get proper funding to secure our border,” Rosendale said at a debate with Tester last month. “And that is where it all begins. We have to secure the border.”
Tester told MTN News that he stands by his vote for the 2013 bill, which would have increased the number of Border Patrol agents and immigration judges, prohibited giving anyone “provisional” immigrant status until fencing and border security was increased, and allowed certain illegal immigrants to get citizenship after being here at least 13 years.
“It was a bipartisan package that put incredible resources on the border, and then made sure that folks who were here and didn’t have the right documentation went to the end of the line, followed the law and learned the language, and then were eligible for citizenship,” he said.
The bill passed the Senate but the House didn’t consider it.
Tester also said he oppose sanctuary cities – “anybody who commits a crime should go to jail” – but that he voted against the anti-sanctuary city bills because they took money away from law enforcement and economic development in those cities.
“We don’t have any sanctuary cities (in Montana), but I can tell you that local law enforcement needs every bit of resource that they can get,” he said. “If they want me to vote against sanctuary cities, then don’t cut local law enforcement, don’t cut the the economic development. And I’ll support that bill.”