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Montana joins Arizona lawsuit to halt Biden immigration plan

March 9, 2021 GMT

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana’s top prosecutor on Monday joined a lawsuit filed last month by Arizona that seeks to halt President Joe Biden’s new immigration policies.

The lawsuit was originally filed Feb. 3 by Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, a Republican, to stop a 100-day moratorium on deportations issued by the Biden administration.

The lawsuit was amended Monday to add Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen, also a Republican, and to challenge guidance issued by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Feb. 18 that indicated the agency would primarily apprehend and remove people who pose a threat to national security or those who’ve committed crimes designated as “aggravated” felonies, such as violent offences or drug trafficking, or recently crossed the border illegally.

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The new policy represents a break from the agency’s direction under former President Donald Trump, whose administration arrested and removed anyone in the country illegally regardless of criminal history or community ties.

The lawsuit argues that the new policy violates federal law that requires that a person who has received a final deportation order be removed from the U.S. within 90 days.

The suit estimates that Montana has some 4,000-5,000 immigrants living in the state without legal permission. That’s one of the smallest populations among U.S. states of immigrants without legal permission in the U.S. as a percentage of the total state population, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center tally.

Knudsen claimed in a statement that methamphetamine brought to Montana by Mexican drug cartels has “wracked our state” and would get worse under the Biden administration’s immigration policy.

The lawsuit revealed Tuesday that an agreement with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security had been signed by Knudsen and Republican Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte in the waning days of the Trump administration to try to restrict Biden’s ability to overhaul his predecessor’s immigration policies.

The agreement was among several quietly signed with state and local jurisdictions, including one signed by Brnovich on behalf of Arizona.

Gianforte’s spokesperson Brooke Stroyke said the governor is “a strong proponent of border security to help combat Montana’s drug epidemic,” and that he “was glad” to partner with the state Justice Department on the agreement. Stroyke did not respond to a question on why the agreement was not publicly announced.

A spokesperson for Knudsen did not respond to requests Tuesday for comment on the lawsuit or the agreement.

Separately in Florida, the state is suing the Biden administration over the same immigration directive.

Florida’s Attorney General Ashley Moody said on Tuesday that the new guidance has resulted in immigration officials declining to take custody of people who have served sentences for burglary, drug trafficking and other crimes.

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Adriana Gomez Licon contributed from Miami, Florida. Samuels is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.