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Zinke, Daines introduce bills seeking to block Palestinians from US

by BLAIR MILLER Daily Montanan
| November 7, 2023 9:22 AM

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, both Montana Republicans, have in recent weeks introduced bills seeking to block Palestinians from entering the United States, and in Zinke’s case, to expel any who have recently come to America.

Last week, Zinke introduced a bill he called the “Safeguarding Americans from Extremism” (SAFE) Act, which aims to require the Department of Homeland Security to block Palestinians with Palestinian Authority passports from obtaining visas, refugee status, or asylum in the U.S. It also seeks to kick out any Palestinians who have entered the U.S. from Oct. 1, or who have lost their lawful status since then, moving forward.

Though the bill has no chance of becoming law, Zinke said in a statement he was bringing it forward because of his lack of trust in the Biden Administration.

“This is the most anti-Hamas immigration legislation I have seen and it’s well deserved,” Zinke said. “Given the circumstances, the threats to our immigration system and the history of terrorists abusing refugee, asylum and visa processes all over the world, the requirements in this bill are necessary to keep Americans safe.”

Ten right-wing Republicans, many of them Freedom Caucus members, signed on to cosponsor the bill. A spokesperson for Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Montana, said Monday he also would be cosponsoring the bill.

Zinke’s team noted that his bill goes further than other similar bills, like Daines’, in that it directs the Department of Homeland Security to work with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to find and deport Palestinians who entered the U.S. on or after Oct. 1, six days prior to the initial Hamas attack on Israel.

Typically, U.S. visas for Palestinians are capped at three years, but the Department of State in May extended that time period to five years for new recipients, saying it would allow for more tourism, educational, business, and family travel.

In support of the legislation, Zinke’s team cited several news stories from the past several years from the U.S., U.K., and France regarding Muslims who threatened people, or governments that warned about possible threats from people entering their nation through the border. However, none of the stories were directly tied only to Palestinian citizens.

In response, Zinke’s Democratic opponent for his congressional seat in 2024, Monica Tranel, called the legislation “a disgusting display of Islamophobia.” State Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula, said of the bill: “This fear-driven cruelty should have no place in American politics.”

The American Civil Liberties Union likened Zinke’s bill to former President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban (Zinke was Interior Secretary under Trump before he was forced to resign amid scandal) and said the “racist” bill was a misuse of the American political system.

“This is an attempt to vilify and dehumanize Palestinians through our immigration laws. While the bill has no chance of passing, politicians who stoke racism and hate contribute to harassment and the risk of violence against American Muslim and immigrant communities,” said ACLU deputy director of government affairs Naureen Shah in a statement.

Daines, who chairs the committee tasked with electing more Republicans to the Senate in 2024, on Oct. 17 introduced what he called the “Guaranteeing Aggressors Zero Admission” (GAZA) Act to prevent the government from granting visas to Palestinians and prevent them entry through the Department of Homeland Security’s parole program. The bill had no cosponsors as of Monday.

“Given the recent terror attacks on Israel by Hamas, it is apparent that terrorists will stop at nothing to do harm to the United States and our allies,” Daines said in a statement. “We must take every action necessary to protect the American people from these threats and force the Biden administration to close our borders to every possible threat to our national security.”

He has also introduced and cosponsored multiple pieces of legislation, and signed on to several letters, in support of Israel or in opposition to Palestine. Those include a bill to use $6 billion in frozen Iranian assets for Israeli defense, adding sanctions for groups that support Hamas, and a resolution to declare that the Senate believes Israel “is not a racist or apartheid state,” among several others.

On Oct. 19, the Department of Homeland Security announced a Sept. 26 policy change that happened just before the initial Hamas attack that allows Israeli citizens to travel to the U.S. without a visa under a waiver program.

FBI Director Christopher Wray last week warned that Hamas’s attacks could inspire other attacks on Americans overseas or domestically and discussed the arrest of a person building bombs in Houston and the alleged hate-crime killing of a 6-year-old Illinois boy as reasons the conflict could be having an effect in America.

“On top of the homegrown extremist and domestic violent extremist threats, we also cannot and do not discount the possibility that Hamas or another foreign terrorist organization may exploit the current conflict to conduct attacks here on our own soil,” he told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

The Associated Press reported Monday the Palestinian death toll had surpassed 10,000 fighters and civilians, citing the Health Ministry of the Gaza Strip. The AP reported around 1,400 Israelis have died in the latest conflict, many of them civilians during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack.

The AP reports that around 70% of the 2.3 million people living in Gaza have fled their homes over the past month.

Palestinians in recent days were hit by airstrikes on United Nations facilities where people are sheltering from Israeli bombs, and another hospital was hit in Gaza on Monday, the AP reported. Israel reported hitting 450 targets overnight and has blamed any civilian casualties on Hamas fighters they say are sheltering and operating in neighborhoods with civilians.

According to the White House, President Joe Biden and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussed possible pauses in the Israeli response to get more assistance to civilians in Gaza and try to secure the release of more Israelis being held by Hamas.

A readout of the call says Biden also mentioned “the need to hold extremist settlers accountable for violent acts” against Palestinians and reiterated his support both for Israeli citizens and “the imperative to protect Palestinian civilians and reduce civilian harm.”

In Missoula on Saturday, more than 100 people called for a ceasefire in the conflict, and some asked the U.S. to stop sending military aid to Israel, Montana Public Radio reported.

According to the Pew Research Center and Jewish Virtual Library, there are about 7.5 million Jewish people in the U.S. and about 1,500 in Montana – about 0.1% of the state’s population. There are an estimated 150,000 to 250,000 Palestinians in the U.S., according to the Institute for Palestine Studies.

All four of Montana’s U.S. senators and congressmen have backed Israel’s right to defend itself after Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks, called on a freeze of $6 billion in Iranian assets that were being held in Qatar to ensure they don’t support Hamas, and pushed the administration to help release American and Israeli hostages. But in the weeks since, the three Republicans and one Democrat have taken slightly different approaches in how they view the war and America’s role.

Tester has additionally asked for swift humanitarian aid to civilians in Gaza and called on the FBI and Department of Homeland Security to help crack down on antisemitic attacks in the U.S. Spokespeople for Tester did not immediately respond to an email Monday asking his stance on Zinke’s and Daines’s bills.

Rosendale voted for an effort among right-wing House Republicans to try to strip additional IRS funding to send to Israel instead, though the plan is unlikely to clear the Senate and is estimated to cost taxpayers tens of billions of dollars because of a lack in expected tax enforcement, according to the IRS and Congressional Budget Office.

Zinke also backed that measure, and he and Daines have vocally opposed people protesting Israel’s attacks on civilians after the Hamas attacks.

Zinke said a group of people, including Jews, who called for a ceasefire in the federal Cannon House Office Building would be “beheaded” if they were to do such a thing in Gaza. Both he and Daines have insinuated that “terrorists” from the Middle East are crossing the southern border with Mexico into the U.S.

In the days after the Oct. 7 attack, Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte ordered flags in Montana fly at half-staff for a week and issued a statement: “Montana stands with Israel and in light with the Jewish people.”

Blair Miller is a Helena-based reporter. The Daily Montanan is a nonprofit newsroom. To read the article as originally published, click here.