In our opinion: Guest worker plan intriguing

Published: Friday, July 2 2010 12:04 a.m. MDT

We're not Arizona. If the state Legislature wants to pass meaningful immigration reforms, Utahns deserve better than a cookie-cutter approach to this complicated issue.

So it is incumbent on Utahns to create their own policies on illegal immigration. The Salt Lake Chamber, the Sutherland Institute and Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff have each proposed various forms of guest worker programs. These proposals, which would help address the state's workforce demands and address security issues, deserve thoughtful consideration as state lawmakers debate these issues.

On Thursday, Gov. Gary Herbert announced on English and Spanish radio stations that he wants to bring Utahns together for a "frank and open discussion" on illegal immigration. Hopefully, this dialogue will help lawmakers craft legislation that addresses Utah's unique characteristics. Utahns are pragmatic but they are also compassionate. A state policy that leaves open even the possibility of racial profiling is not desirable.

Consider the possibilities of Utah employers legally hiring workers for specific needs. The workers could be documented and tested.

Best of all, they would enjoy temporary legal status, which would help protect them from exploitation. It would be a boon to law enforcement, because people with legal status would be more likely to report crimes and assist police if they do not fear their interactions with law enforcement would result in deportation.

These are appealing alternatives to some state lawmakers' plans for an Arizona-like proposal. That law, which takes effect on July 29, requires police making traffic stops or questioning people about possible legal violations to determine, if there is "reasonable suspicion," whether they're in the country illegally.

A "guest worker" law alone would not solve the many issues surrounding illegal immigration. But it could work within an existing framework of federal law to help provide needed labor and provide protection for those workers. It also would protect employers.

But care must be taken to ensure a guest worker program does not encourage the hiring of lower-paid illegal immigrants under the table. That was one of the pitfalls of the federal Bracero Program, which started in 1942 and sanctioned some 4.5 million Mexican nationals to take temporary agricultural work in the United States. The program ended in the mid-1960s amid concerns raised by many groups that Bracero workers had been exploited by legal employers.

The Utah Legislature must consider the real-world ramifications of any policy it adopts with respect to illegal immigration. It is primarily a federal issue. But a number of thoughtful voices in our community have offered up alternatives to Arizona's law that can conceivably help address employment and security issues on the state level. Lawmakers should consider these proposals with open minds and open hearts.

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