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2024 Montana Primary elections
Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Immigrant family's arrival in the Flathead sparks political debate

Graphic: Montana Public Radio News: Politics

The recent arrival of one immigrant family in the Flathead Valley started a flurry of statements from Republicans condemning immigration policies. The Local Sheriff says the increase in migrants is putting a strain on resources. Advocates say the issue is being blown out of proportion during an election year.

Flathead Sheriff Brian Heino wrote a public letter in early May saying the number of migrants coming to the flathead are creating difficulties for his department and the community.

It was spurred, Heino said, by a family from Venezuela that arrived via a commercial flight without plans for housing, according to Heino.

Heino said his department was working to produce data that shows how his officers are increasingly struggling to interact with migrants that don’t speak English or have unknown immigration statuses. But he has yet to release that information at the time of this story airing.

His letter was followed by press releases from Republican political candidates and officials calling for the family to be deported and blaming President Joe Biden for his immigration policies. Republican Legislators are requesting a special session to pass state laws that could regulate “illegal immigration” and related nonprofits, organizations, individuals and businesses. It’s unclear what the immigration status of the family that arrived in Kalispell is.

Valley Neighbors, a nonprofit that supports migrants in the Flathead, said Heino’s comments have painted a target on the organization’s back. Rebecca Miller chairs the nonprofit’s board.

“There’s been a lot of support, but there’s definitely been threats,” Miller said.

Miller said Valley Neighbors didn’t bring the family to the Flathead and that the organization does limited work to help migrants move to the area. She said most of its services are aimed at helping migrants find housing, apply for jobs and learn English so they can become part of the community. She said most move to the region because they already have friends or family here.

“So in the last year, we’ve seen a lot of families arrive, with moms and kids. We do have a growing immigrant population,” Miller said.

Miller said most migrants are legally seeking asylum or have a temporary protected status. Both allow migrants to get work permits.

It’s unclear just how many people are migrating to western Montana. Mary Poole is the executive director of Soft Landing Missoula, which provides similar services to Valley Neighbors.

“The International Rescue Committee settles probably a little over a 100 folks here every year,” Poole said.

She said there isn’t a huge wave of migrants coming here. She said it’s more of a trickle. And they’re coming from all over the world, not just across the southern border.

Poole said the recent uproar in the Flathead is more of a symptom of the national immigration discussion heating up during a presidential election year.

“We don’t probably think it’s the end. It’ll probably be a topic through November,” said Poole.

She added it could also be a hot topic through the state’s 2025 legislative session.

Aaron graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Journalism in 2015 after interning at Minnesota Public Radio. He landed his first reporting gig in Wrangell, Alaska where he enjoyed the remote Alaskan lifestyle and eventually moved back to the road system as the KBBI News Director in Homer, Alaska. He joined the MTPR team in 2019. Aaron now reports on all things in northwest Montana and statewide health care.
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