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Zinke seeks evidence of his own claims about arrival of immigrant family

by DERRICK PERKINS
Daily Inter Lake | May 19, 2024 12:05 AM

Despite raising the specter that a nonprofit worked with the Biden administration to relocate immigrants in the country illegally to Kalispell earlier this month, U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke has yet to produce evidence for the claim.

Zinke’s office first revealed that a family of immigrants had arrived in Northwest Montana in a May 2 press release that included statements from Flathead County Sheriff Brian Heino and County Commissioner Randy Brodehl. The Republican congressman described the immigrants as Venezuelan and in the United States unlawfully, and said they traveled from Texas to New York where they took a flight to the Flathead Valley, landing in the evening hours of May 1. 

In Kalispell, according to the press release, they found aid from Valley Neighbors, an organization that supports immigrants and refugees, which the congressman labeled a “dark money nonprofit.”

“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. They didn’t walk across to Babb,” Zinke said in a statement.

But officials with Valley Neighbors deny arranging the immigrant family’s travel and dispute the claim that it works with the White House. 

Pressed on where Zinke got his information from about the immigrant family, their immigration status and nationality, former Zinke spokesperson Colton Snedecor initially cited Heino and Brodehl. As for whether Valley Neighbors arranged for the family’s travel or coordinated with the Biden administration, a second Zinke spokesperson argued that the congressman never accused the nonprofit of doing anything more than helping the immigrants.

Zinke has no intention of retracting his statement, said the second spokesperson for his office, who refused to identify themselves, in an email.

“Why would that be retracted? There is no doubt the group had assistance getting to Montana, and there is no denying the Biden administration pays nonprofits to move migrants around the country,” the spokesperson wrote. “Both of those things are facts that support the congressman’s statement.”

Asked for evidence that the immigrant family in Kalispell received help in getting to Montana, either by the Biden administration or a nonprofit, the spokesperson instead pointed to a letter Zinke sent to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas demanding an investigation. 

“We are asking the same thing as you. That is exactly why the congressman sent the letter to [the Department of Homeland Security], to get those answers. Once the department provides the information it will be shared,” the spokesperson wrote to the Daily Inter Lake. 

U.S. Senate candidate Tim Sheehy also accused the federal government of bringing the family to Montana — his campaign did not respond to a request for evidence of the allegation.

Gov. Greg Gianforte initially stopped short of linking the White House to the immigrants’ arrival in Kalispell. Instead, he said in a statement earlier this month 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.”

Yet, Gianforte’s campaign posted an ad last week on the social media platform X accusing the president of “secretly flying illegal immigrants in Montana and dropping them off in the Flathead Valley.” When the Daily Inter Lake asked for evidence to support the claim, a campaign spokesperson said the ad had been taken down. 

“The [X] ad was a product of an outside contractor and has been removed at our direction,” said spokesperson Anna Marian Block. “When it comes down to it, Montanans know too well that Joe Biden's open border is making our country and communities less safe, and Gov. Gianforte has taken action to secure the border and press Biden to do his job.”

Gianforte, like Zinke and Brodehl, is seeking reelection in November.

THE DETAILS about the immigrants and their arrival in the Flathead Valley began to unravel after the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office offered differing accounts of its interaction with the family to state media outlets. 

Heino told the Inter Lake that his personnel became aware of the immigrant family after they were directed to the Sheriff’s Office for help.

“They were told to come to the Sheriff's Office and sleep in the lobby and I was trying to figure out solutions to not have people sleep in our lobby,” Heino said then, describing how deputies were arranging to take the family to Missoula when members of Valley Neighbors swooped in without notice and picked them up.

Heino said he was unable to determine the family’s immigration status. Citing a language barrier and the lack of a crime to investigate, Heino said he could only ask and no identifying documentation — drivers’ licenses, passports, visas or immigration papers — were provided.

But the Sheriff’s Office offered a different account to the Helena Independent Record, stating that the family was picked up prior to anyone from the office making contact with them.

Asked about the discrepancy, Heino acknowledged in an email last week that his personnel had no direct contact with the immigrant family. The Sheriff’s Office was contacted by representatives of a local homeless shelter who acted as a go-between, he said. 

“Most of the contact and information was shared through the parties assisting them,” Heino wrote in the email.

By the time deputies arrived to pick the family up, they had left the shelter, he said.

Brodehl, who offered additional details about the immigrants in an opinion piece published in the Daily Inter Lake on May 5, also hedged his previous statements in an interview. In the column, Brodehl wrote that two families arrived in Kalispell from Venezuela, crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas before getting flown by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to New York where they left for the Flathead Valley. 

Officials with Valley Neighbors maintain it was one family.

Brodehl told the Inter Lake this week that his details came either from Heino or a representative of Zinke’s office. All three were involved in a conference call following the immigrants’ arrival, he said. 

Brodehl also said he was unsure of Abbott’s role in the immigrants’ travel arrangements, but maintained the government of Texas was involved. 

As for Zinke’s portrayal of Valley Neighbors as a “dark money nonprofit,” Brodehl said he could offer no descriptor for the group.

“I have not spoken with them. I don’t have any idea of where they get their funding from or who gives them donations,” Brodehl said of Valley Neighbors. “I’m not going to describe them at all.”

But Brodehl had previously appeared on the radio show “Montana Talks” to discuss the immigrants while host Aaron Flint repeatedly used the term “dark money nonprofit” to describe Valley Neighbors. Flint also accused them of facilitating “human trafficking” in Montana. 

Brodehl disputed neither of the claims on air. 

REBECCA MILLER, vice chair of Valley Neighbors, said none of the elected officials who have criticized or denounced the group have contacted them, either before or after Zinke’s press release hit inboxes. 

“This was a very ordinary situation of encountering human beings in need. There was nothing extraordinary, nefarious or particularly noteworthy about it,” she said. “I was as shocked as anyone to suddenly have my email box filling up.”

Miller was the first Valley Neighbors representative to provide the family aid upon their arrival at the Samaritan House in Kalispell. Family members called her directly, she said. 

While unsure of how the family got her phone number, Miller said she is known in the community as someone who can help immigrants. Service providers have her contact information as do other immigrants, she said. 

“It was cold and raining. These people had nowhere to go and I stepped up to provide some humanitarian assistance,” Miller recalled. “We did our thing. It was very surprising to see the later news story.”

Miller said she could not confirm that the family had spoken to representatives of any local law enforcement agency. Chris Krager, executive director of Samaritan House, said he could not say with certainty that a worker at the shelter contacted authorities. To his knowledge, the family had contact information for both the Sheriff’s Office and Valley Neighbors when they arrived at the facility, he said.

Krager stressed that shelter officials work to protect the confidentiality of their clients or potential clients. 

“It’s a simple scenario: We were full and had to turn away a family,” Krager said of the situation on May 1. 

Miller and Valley Neighbors Chair Johnny Skinner confirmed arranging shelter for the immigrant family and taking care of other basic necessities, but they declined to identify their nationality or immigration status. The pair cited privacy concerns and said that “as a service provider, it would be inappropriate for us to publicly comment on any potential case project for a family we may be providing services to.”

The pair did flatly reject the accusation that Valley Neighbors played a role in bringing the immigrants to Montana. As for the “dark money nonprofit” label, Miller said Valley Neighbors relies on community fundraising and grants to operate. The organization does receive grant funding from the U.S. State Department via a resettlement agency for administrative costs associated with refugees, she said. 

“That is related to very limited refugee resettlement cases … those are the most vetted legal immigrants that you’re going to have,” Miller said. “So for the management of those very specific cases we receive a small amount of administrative funds. That’s not used for any other clients or work that we do.”

As for claims that Valley Neighbors is tied to the Biden administration, Miller confirmed routinely receiving correspondence from the president.

“My connection with Joe Biden's campaign is he keeps sending me messages to send him $10 and I keep ignoring them,” she said. 

News Editor Derrick Perkins can be reached at dperkins@dailyinterlake.com or 758-4430.