Thursday, June 13, 2024

Arrival of migrant family in Kalispell spurs concerns from Montana politicians

Daily Inter Lake | May 2, 2024 6:00 PM

A migrant family of five flew into Kalispell from New York on Wednesday and ended up on the doorstep of the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office, said Sheriff Brian Heino.

The family — a husband, wife and kids — crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas and were flown to New York and then from New York to Kalispell, Heino said. After first trying to find lodging at an area homeless shelter and having been turned away, they ended up in the lobby of the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office looking for help, he said. 

“They were told that this is a great place to be,” Heino told the Daily Inter Lake on Thursday. 

Heino said that because the family had broken no laws, authorities were unable to investigate the story or the circumstances of their arrival. The group provided no documentation — no passports, drivers’ licenses or immigration documents — to the authorities, according to Heino.  

“They pretty much advised that they had come across the border and they were waiting for their paperwork,” he said. “We had a language barrier going on there, but I would say they didn’t have the documentation to show their status in the U.S.”

It’s unclear how the family acquired tickets to Glacier Park International Airport. 

“All we could really find out was that a group of friends or an organization bought them plane tickets to Montana,” he said.

Heino said that officials were working to connect the family with services when representatives of Valley Neighbors, a volunteer nonprofit group that works to welcome and support immigrants to the region, arrived to provide assistance. He said he received no prior communication from the group and was unsure how they knew about the migrant family. 

While Heino said he found the circumstances odd, he said he had no evidence to link the nonprofit to the family’s arrival in Kalispell. 

“We were working toward a solution and, whether pre-coordinated or not, they show up and they grab them and they house them,” he said. “I’m not saying that wasn’t a positive thing.”

BY THURSDAY afternoon, the family’s arrival had become a cause celebre among Montana’s lawmakers and would-be lawmakers in an election cycle where immigration has become a key issue for politicians on both sides of the political divide. 

U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Montana, who is running for reelection against Democrat Monica Tranel, issued a statement describing Valley Neighbors as a “dark money” nonprofit and accusing it of working with the Biden administration to import migrants to Montana. 

“The only way an illegal immigrant from South America ends up in Montana is if a ‘nonprofit’ connected with the Biden administration moves them there,” said Zinke, who identified the family as hailing from Venezuela. 

Pressed on why Zinke referred to Valley Neighbors as a dark money nonprofit, spokesperson Colton Snedecor said the group was run by “known activists who work closely with NGOs that are government funded and used to carry out agendas once policies are implemented, like flying undocumented immigrants to Montana …” 

Zinke has since sent a letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas demanding an investigation into the family’s arrival in Kalispell. 

In a past interview with the Daily Inter Lake, Valley Neighbors leaders said they had worked to aid refugees from Ukraine as well as from Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador as they navigate the asylum process in the U.S.

In a statement, representatives of Valley Neighbors said the organization was "made aware of an immigrant family in need after their arrival and responded by providing them assistance in accordance with our mission and the support of our community.

"We are saddened that our organization and the vulnerable families that we work with are being targeted and used for political gain through ill-informed and false statements made by some of our state’s elected officials."

Tim Sheehy, a Bozeman businessman and the GOP frontrunner to challenge three-term Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, accused the federal government of flying the family to the Flathead Valley. A spokesperson for Sheehy’s campaign did not immediately provide evidence of that allegation. 

Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte, who is poised to face Kalispell Democrat Ryan Busse on the ballot this November, obliquely blamed the Biden administration for the family’s trip to Northwest Montana. While falling short of accusing the White House of arranging the trip, Gianforte said in a statement that “I’ve repeatedly pressed Joe Biden to tell governors when he ships illegal immigrants to our states, who they are, and where they’re going. Shamefully, he hasn’t done any of it.”

WHOMEVER SENT the family to Kalispell, they failed to take into account the region’s lack of services for migrants, Heino said. 

“We have no resources [for this]. We have none,” Heino said. “Even if you talk about the language barrier … we have a couple of people in the [Sheriff’s Office] that speak Spanish, but not every individual speaks Spanish.”

Valley-wide, nonprofit resources and public services are stretched thin, he said. Homeless shelters are at maximum capacity and the region’s housing crunch is well-known, Heino said. Where do you put migrants when Sheriff’s Office employees struggle to find homes, he said.

And given the rapid population boom in recent years, the county has scant few resources left to aid migrants, he said. Using his office as an example, he said, a service call involving individuals speaking Spanish often takes much longer to clear as deputies arrange for a translator.

“There are opportunities in other localities across the U.S. that are building systems in place; we have none,” he said. 

Heino said he feared the migrant family’s arrival was organized and intentional. Undocumented migrants have arrived in the past, but they typically come by bus, he said. 

“My biggest concern is: Is there a moving of the problem to rural America?” Heino said.

* This story has been updated to include a statement from Valley Neighbors.