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Tester first Senate Democrat to support Laken Riley Act immigration bill • Daily Montanan

With immigration and border security increasingly becoming the top issue for Americans in this year’s election and what is expected to be a tight race likely against Republican Tim Sheehy, who has made the border a predominant issue in his campaign, Montana U.S. Sen. Jon Tester last week became the first Democratic senator to cosponsor the Laken Riley Act.

Tester’s endorsement of the bill is his latest move as he attempts to navigate what he has for years said are real issues involving immigration and the border that need to be addressed – he supported the bipartisan border and immigration bill scuttled by Republicans in February – while Republicans attempt to make immigration a wedge issue for voters as they try to take back the Senate and White House this year while keeping hold of power in the House of Representatives.

Tester said in a statement the endorsement of the bill comes after requests to do more to help law enforcement to fight drug trafficking and other crime and after his repeated pushing of the Biden administration to do more to secure the border.

“After hearing from law enforcement officers across Montana, I’m backing the Laken Riley Act to make sure that individuals who enter our country and commit a crime are held accountable so that no Montana family has to worry about the safety of their loved ones,” Tester said in a statement.

History of the Laken Riley Act

The Republican-held House passed the Laken Riley Act in early March with support from both Reps. Ryan Zinke and Matt Rosendale, both Montana Republicans, as well as from 37 Democratic members of the House of Representatives.

Sponsored by Rep. Mike Collins, R-Georgia, the bill was named after a student who was killed in February on the University of Georgia campus by a man who allegedly entered the U.S. illegally in 2022 and was arrested by Customs and Border Protection but later released.

He was arrested in New York City the next year but was released by police, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. That man, Jose Ibarra, was indicted last week on 10 counts, including murder.

The bill would require the Department of Homeland Security to deport undocumented immigrants arrested for burglary, theft, larceny or shoplifting and for states to sue the federal government for “alleged failure” of immigration enforcement.

Immigration a primary talking point in 2024 election

Riley’s killing became another inflection point for Republicans to chastise the Biden administration for its immigration policies surrounding both legal and illegal immigration, as well as asylum. The House impeached Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in February by one vote over his handling of immigration, though the Democrat-held Senate in April dismissed the articles of impeachment against him.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection reports around 8.8 million encounters with migrants as of January since the start of the Biden administration and the highest start to a fiscal year so far during his presidency. About 6 million of those encounters involved people who were taken into custody.

Immigrants wait overnight next to the U.S.-Mexico border fence to seek asylum in the United States on Jan. 7, 2023 as viewed from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. (Photo by John Moore | Getty Images)

Through January, Customs and Border Protection reported releasing about 2.4 million migrants since January 2021, though some of them have notices to appear or report to court, or are on parole with conditions. About 70% of those cases involve families.

But the administration has also sent about 4 million people back to Mexico, more than half of them under the Title 42 policy that did not allow migrants to try to seek asylum or other protections before they were sent back to Mexico or their home country. The administration ended the policy last May.

The rise in immigration during the Biden administration following former President Donald Trump’s border wall, travel ban, and policies to separate children from their families at the border has made the border and immigration a topic Republicans have focused on heavily as a campaign issue in the lead-up to this year’s elections.

Combined with the nationwide increase in fentanyl availability and overdose deaths, which Republicans partially blame on lax border controls, immigration has increasingly become the most significant topic for Americans, according to polling.

Pew Research found that 78% of respondents to a survey conducted in January found the number of migrants seeking entry at the southern border was either a crisis (45%) or a major problem (32%).

In February, Gallup found 28% of Americans believed immigration was the most important problem facing the U.S. – up from 20% the month prior and coming in as the top issue, ahead of the government, economy, and inflation.

According to a survey conducted in April by Ipsos, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and Lester Crown Center on U.S. Foreign Policy, 54% of respondents said controlling and reducing illegal immigration should be an important foreign policy goal for the country – up from 42% in 2018.

The survey showed Republicans (86%) are far more likely to want to control and reduce illegal immigration than independents (50%) and Democrats (34%). But it also showed that having a policy goal of controlling and reducing illegal immigration has become more favorable among all three groups since 2018, moving from 20% among Democrats polled in 2018 to 34% this year and from 71% to 86% among Republicans.

The survey also found broad support among Republicans for policies to get more migrants out of the country no matter their status and little appetite for creating pathways for migrants to gain citizenship or to stay in the country and the inverse for Democrats.

Tester pushes on immigration; Sheehy attacks him

Tester, one of several vulnerable Democrats in the Senate up for re-election this year in states where Republicans have been performing better in recent years than Democrats, backed the bipartisan border security bill blocked by most Senate Republicans in February because of former President Donald Trump’s opposition. A poll done in March found Trump maintains strong popularity in Montana but about 14% of respondents here said they would split their tickets and vote for both Trump and Tester.

House Republicans have pushed the Senate to pass its H.R. 2 border security bill but have been met with little appetite for it even among Republicans.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester meets with Customs and Border Protection Agents along the southern border in McAllen, Texas, in March 2019. (Photo via Sen. Tester's Office)
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester meets with Customs and Border Protection Agents along the southern border in McAllen, Texas, in March 2019. (Photo via Sen. Tester’s Office)

Tester wrote to Biden in late February saying the situation at the border is “unacceptable” and urged the president to “use all of the remaining tools at your disposal to strengthen border security where executive action is possible.”

The same day, Sheehy released an ad saying Tester “rubber-stamped Biden’s open borders” and urging further construction of the border wall. He’s sent out a consistent stream of social media posts in the months since claiming the administration and Tester support “open border” policies and claiming Tester’s push for more action on immigration was insincere.

In April, Tester told Mayorkas at a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing that what the administration was doing was not working and more needed to be done. His office has touted he and other senators on Appropriations funding up to 22,000 more Border Patrol agents for the fiscal year, adding more than 40,000 detention beds, and increasing funding for border technology like scanners as wins he’s had on border security and immigration.

Also that month, Tester released an ad on the border issue in which his campaign touts his work across party lines on the issue.

“Jon Tester worked with Republicans, fighting to shut down the border, target fentanyl traffickers, and add hundreds of new border patrol agents. And he fought to stop President Biden from letting migrants stay in America instead of remain in Mexico. Jon Tester knows defending Montana starts with securing the border,” the ad said.

Biden in April signed the FEND Off Fentanyl Act as part of a broader package, which Tester co-sponsored and which aims to crack down on fentanyl trafficking, impose international sanctions on traffickers, and declares international trafficking as a national emergency.

Two weeks ago, a migrant family arrived in Kalispell and received helped from a local nonprofit, apparently via New York, setting off another round of statements from most of Montana’s top Republican politicians linking immigration at the southern border to issues in Montana. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas has spent about $148 million bussing more than 100,000 migrants to other U.S. cities typically run by Democrats, the Texas Tribune reported.

And last Monday, the pro-Sheehy PAC More Jobs Less Government released another ad, highlighting Tester’s previous comments saying Biden was helping secure the border and saying he was opposed to a border wall “from sea to shining sea,” arguing he was “too liberal for Montana.”

Three days later, Tester announced his support for the Laken Riley Act.

“Keeping Montana safe is my top priority, which is why I’ve repeatedly called on the Biden Administration and Congress to do more to secure the southern border and have worked to get the brave men and women in law enforcement what they need to keep criminals off our streets,” he said in a statement.

He had voted against the measure when it was brought up as an amendment to the spending package that funded the government, which would have derailed the package and possibly led to a government shutdown had it been included. Tester told the Belgrade News in March he would vote for the Laken Riley Act as a standalone bill, however.

Sheehy, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, led by Montana Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, and the Montana Republican Party all misleadingly claimed in the wake of Tester’s announced last week that he had “flip-flopped” on his support for the measure. The Laken Riley Act has yet to be brought up for a standalone vote in the Senate where it would not affect other legislation.

“The only thing Tester is working on is rewriting history in an election year,” Sheehy said in a social media post.

Tester’s campaign spokesperson, Monica Robinson, responded: “D.C. Republican operatives aren’t being honest about Jon Tester’s record.”

Border security highlighted by other Montana candidates

Though recent polling suggests Montanans aren’t quite as concerned with issues at the southern border as Americans at large — just 9% said immigration was their top issue this year in a poll conducted in late February and early March — the topic is likely to be among the top ones in this year’s election cycle in Montana, and not just in the Senate or congressional races.

Several candidates for statewide office and for legislative seats have already made trips to the border in recent months and created ads about how they want to oust the Biden administration and crack down on immigration and smuggling.

Gov. Greg Gianforte speaks at a press conference at the U.S.-Mexico border in Eagle Pass, Texas on Sunday. (Photo courtesy of the Governor’s Office)

Gov. Greg Gianforte met with other Republican governors at the border in February, then sent sent 10 Montana National Guard soldiers to Texas in early April to help with Abbott’s “Operation Lone Star,” who arrived back to Montana in recent days.

“I am grateful for the hard work and dedication of our soldiers who stepped up to the plate to answer the call for assistance to address the national security crisis that is our open southern border,” Gianforte said in a statement Monday. “With the support of Republican governors, Texas’ efforts have led to a decline in illegal crossings. Action from the Biden administration is long overdue.”

Gianforte, the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office and Montana’s Republican delegation have all denounced the arrival of the immigrant family that showed up in the Flathead in recent weeks, and a group of Republican state lawmakers have also called for a special session based on the fact they had come to the Flathead.

Attorney General Austin Knudsen said last week that Montana Highway Patrol seized more than 30,000 fentanyl pills so far this year and 166 grams of powdered fentanyl. Task forces seized 111% more fentanyl doses last year than in 2022, he said, adding that he has joined multiple lawsuits trying to force the administration to “secure the border.”

And Republican Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen, up for re-election this year, penned an opinion column published Saturday saying there were “two looming crises” threatening Montana: “The surge in fentanyl trafficking and massive illegal immigration.”

“It’s my personal belief that these intertwined issues pose grave dangers to our state’s safety and future prosperity,” she wrote in Lee Newspapers, also going on to attack the Biden administration as being responsible. “…As Montanans, we cherish our freedoms and way of life, but these blessings are jeopardized by illegal immigrants being secretly placed in non-sanctuary cities, even here in Montana. We must recognize these issues and solve them immediately.”

Tester’s campaign highlighted his support for the Laken Riley Act in email blasts at the end of the week, saying being the only Democrat in the Senate to support the bill shows he is willing to work across the aisle on the topic.

“Jon remains committed to working with anyone in Congress to secure the southern border and protect our national security, and he’ll continue to demand that Congress put politics aside to reach a bipartisan solution and deliver solutions for the American people,” his campaign said in a news release.

The Biden administration is also proposing new actions at the border, including speeding up the asylum process, and considering further executive actions to further cut down on illegal entry and smuggling, the Associated Press reported last week. Fox News reported Monday Senate Democrats might try to revive the bipartisan border package defeated in February.