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Immigration is at the heart of Montana's hotly contested Senate race

(The Center Square) – Montana has one of the longest stretches of U.S. border with Canada of any state. However, it's the other border – nearly 1,000 miles away – that is becoming a flashpoint in the state's ongoing U.S. Senate race.

Montana's U.S. Senate seat, currently held by Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, is up for re-election this year. Tester is running against Republican candidate Tim Sheehy, a former Navy SEAL and firefighter. Sheehy has repeatedly attacked Tester on immigration and border security — trying to portray him as an enabler of President Joe Biden's record on illegal immigration from Mexico — forcing Tester to defend his record.

Democratic Senator Jon Tester’s seat in Montana’s U.S. Senate is up for re-election this year. REUTERS

“What is happening at the southern border is an absolute crisis, and it is getting worse every day under the Biden administration and with career politicians like Jon Tester who talk a lot about border security but don't do their jobs,” Sheehy writes on his campaign website. “The result of an open southern border is more crime and drugs pouring into our country and into our communities in Montana.”

Since the Biden administration took office, more than 7.9 million foreign nationals have illegally crossed the U.S. border with Mexico, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. That number includes only those apprehended by law enforcement, not those who successfully slip through ports of entry. Many of those foreign nationals are able to stay in the country after applying for asylum, which can take years to process.

Republican candidate Tim Sheehy, a former Navy SEAL and airborne firefighter, is running against Tester. AP

“Jon Tester worked hand-in-hand with Joe Biden to support the invasion of our southern border,” Sheehy wrote in a press release attacking Tester for voting to dismiss impeachment charges against Biden's Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. Sheehy has promised to support building a physical wall along the southern border – a longtime policy goal of former President Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee – as well as halting federal resettlement flights used to disperse migrants across the country.

Sheehy's focus on the border reflects a broader strategy by Republican Senate candidates in swing states across the country to put the issue front and center. In April, a campaign arm of the Senate Republican Conference announced it would spend $15 million this election to attack testers on immigration issues, Politico reports.

Tester, for his part, has emphasized the contrast between himself and Biden on this issue.

Tester, for his part, has emphasized the contrast between himself and Biden in the border crisis. REUTERS

“I stood up to Biden by demanding action to secure our border and protect the Montana way of life,” Tester, now known as X, wrote on Twitter on June 9. Tester has also expressed support for a bipartisan border security bill that was introduced in the Senate in February and again in May and which Republicans voted against.

“We had one of the toughest border bills we've ever had in the Senate and Republicans voted it down because they wanted to give my opponent a campaign issue,” Tester tweeted. Addressing his opponent directly, he wrote, “Tim – you didn't even read the damn bill before saying you opposed it!”

But critics of the Senate bill backed by Tester said it would expand and codify the discretionary authority of Biden's Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on border issues. Using that discretionary power, Mayorkas unilaterally changed laws passed by Congress, including creating over a dozen parole programs that House Republicans declared illegal and cited in their impeachment in February.

Sheehy's focus on the border reflects a broader strategy among Republican Senate candidates in swing states across the country. AP

This year, Tester joined Republicans in Congress in supporting conservative immigration legislation – an unusual move for a Democrat in the Senate. The most important of these is the Laken Riley Act, a bill named after a Georgia graduate student who was allegedly killed by an illegal alien. The House passed it in March, and Tester co-sponsored it in the Senate.

Montana is considered an extremely conservative state, with a Cook Partisan Voting Index (PVI) score of R+11, indicating a Republican bias. However, Tester has been re-elected three times as a Democrat and is currently the only Democrat holding statewide office.

Immigration is a major issue in all federal election campaigns this year as Democrats seek to mitigate Republican charges that they are intentionally allowing illegal immigration. Biden signed an executive order on June 4 that prohibits illegal border crossers from obtaining asylum. But on June 18, he also issued an order that would allow certain illegal immigrants who married U.S. citizens to obtain legal status and eventually U.S. citizenship themselves—what Republicans deride as “amnesty.”

Montana is considered an extremely conservative state with a Cook Partisan Voting Index (PVI) value of R+11. CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Not to be outdone, Trump announced last week that he would grant permanent residency to any foreign student who graduates from a U.S. college or university. Given that there are currently over a million foreign students in the country, according to the State Department, Trump's proposal would be the largest expansion of legal immigration since the Reagan administration, when Congress last passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill.

Tester and Sheehy did not immediately respond to requests for comment on whether they support Biden's or Trump's recent actions.

Anna Harden

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