SALT LAKE CITY — Illegal immigrants would have to obtain a state-issued permit to live and work in Utah without fear of deportation under a draft legislative proposal unveiled Tuesday.
Proponents of the bill, though, were quick to say it does not create a guest worker program or deal with immigration status, nor does it provide a path to citizenship or amnesty. Rather, Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake, said it would provide a way to account for the estimated 110,000 undocumented immigrants in the state. It also has an enforcement component that other illegal immigration proposals lack, she said.
"The reality is the vast majority of immigrants want to be part of something. Right now, there is no mechanism for them to be part of anything," Robles said.
Paul Mero, president of the Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank, helped craft the proposal. He said undocumented people who want live and work as Utahns will obtain the permit.
"If you do, you're welcome among us. If you don't, you're not welcome among us. It's that simple," he said. Without a permit, he said, "life in the state of Utah is going to be very difficult. It will be very hard to live in the shadows."
The proposal provides for two types of what Robles calls "accountability" permits: Type A for undocumented immigrants age 18 and older who have lived in the state for at least 18 months and type B for new arrivals who can demonstrate arrangements for work in Utah. Those people would also have to meet an English proficiency requirement within a year. All applicants would undergo a criminal background check. The card, which would include a photo, would be for work purposes only and not valid for identification, similar to the state-issued driving privilege card.
The Utah Department of Public Safety would administer the program and maintain a database of applicants, according to the bill. Robles said the application fee could be around $500.
Mero said the proposal is not an open invitation for undocumented immigrants to flock to Utah. "The application is completely market driven," he said, adding people won't move to the state without the prospect of a job.
The legislation also would obligate businesses to verify undocumented immigrants have valid permits or face the possibility of a fine.
Under the bill, police who lawfully stop undocumented immigrants may ask for their permit. If the card is not provided, officers are to photograph and fingerprint the individual, who could be charged with a class C misdemeanor. Those who refuse to be fingerprinted and photographed could be charged with a class B misdemeanor.
Mero said this legislation differs from Rep. Stephen Sandstrom's controversial bill, which is similar to an Arizona law passed earlier this year that empowers state police to enforce federal immigration laws.
"There is zero accountability in Sandstrom's bill," he said.
Federal approval would be needed to implement the program, and the bill calls for the governor to petition for the necessary waivers, exemptions and authority. However, Robles and Mero said should it pass the Utah Legislature, it would go into effect regardless.
"If they (the federal government) want to take us to court, they can take us to court," Mero said.
Though he likes the idea of work permits, Tony Yapias, director of Proyecto Latino de Utah, sees the federal government as a huge hurdle.
"Why would the federal government want to give Utah, of all states, this accountability act?" he said. "Utah would have to be exceptionally democratic in some way for the Obama administration to even consider it."
Yapias said the bill gives false hopes to the undocumented community.
"Anyone who understands immigration 101 realizes right away this is not possible," he said. "Is it realistic? No. It ain't gonna happen."
Robles said the proposed legislation is the product of collaborative efforts by Republican and Democratic state legislators; community, business, and government leaders; local, state and federal law enforcement officials over the past several months. However, Robles and Mero were the only leaders who spoke at the news conference Tuesday.