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Reactions mixed on immigrant reform plan

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 1 2010 10:52 p.m. MST

Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake, right, and Paul Mero, of Sutherland Institute, left, are seen at a recent press conference.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Many elements would have to come together in a perfect storm for a proposed immigration reform plan calling for illegal immigrants to obtain state-issued work permits to be a viable way to fix a complex problem.

In unveiling her legislation, Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake, called it a "more realistic solution" that brings individual and business accountability to the undocumented immigration issue.

And in offering his support, Paul Mero, president of the conservative Sutherland Institute, says the program is practical and reasonable. "It asks something of everyone and yet burdens no one needlessly."

Under the proposal, state government, the business community and illegal immigrants themselves would have to make some significant, possibly expensive, changes to make the idea work. It also would need cooperation from the federal government.

A draft of the bill released Tuesday calls for undocumented people to undergo criminal background checks, meet an English proficiency standard and apply for "accountability cards" allowing them to work in Utah.

Local Hispanic groups are at odds over Robles' bill.

Tony Yapias, director of Proyecto Latino de Utah, calls it "another false start" on immigration reform. Though he finds the plan well-intentioned, he said it isn't practical and won't work because the federal government won't give it a thumbs up.

"We are concerned that this approach gives undocumented immigrants false hope," he said.

Archie Archuleta, president Utah Coalition of La Raza, says the proposal is "sound strategy" for dealing with Utah's undocumented immigrant population.

"It forces the forces of anti-immigration and the forces of pro-immigration to look at a different approach," he said. "It adds a positive note to solving the problem rather than a punitive one."

Still, Archuleta said undocumented immigrants would eye the program with suspicion. When the federal government declared amnesty for illegal immigrants in the 1980s, he said, "it was like pulling teeth from people to get them to bring in their paperwork.

"The hard part is, will they go forward and take those cards? … I would be leery if I were undocumented. But at the same time, it would give me hope that there is a better way."

One section in the 21-page bill is titled "business obligations." Employers would have to ensure their undocumented workers have a permit and would have to register with and pay a fee to the Utah Department of Public Safety, the state agency the bill charges with overseeing the program.

Businesses are always concerned about bureaucracy, said Marty Carpenter, spokesman for the Salt Lake Chamber.

"We want to make it as easy as we can for businesses to fill jobs that they have open," he said.

The chamber doesn't have a position on Robles' bill at this point, but the legislation does include concepts it has endorsed. "It certainly looks like she has implemented a lot of ideas from the guest worker program and tried to implement principles of the Utah Compact," Carpenter said.

In 2008, the chamber pitched a guest worker program to the Utah Legislature, which resulted in a resolution requesting the state's congressional delegation to seek federal waivers on the creation of a two-year program. Last month, the chamber joined community and political leaders in signing a document called the Utah Compact that outlines principles to guide the immigration debate, including urging federal solutions and policies that don't separate families.

Mero said the bill also fits Gov. Gary Herbert's own guiding principles regarding illegal immigration, which include private sector accountability and tools for law enforcement. Herbert spokeswoman Angie Welling said Robles brought the governor a copy of the draft to review as have sponsors of other immigration measures. Regarding the provision in Robles' bill requiring him to petition the federal government for authority to carry out the worker permit program should it become law, Welling said he's looking into that process. "He would consider that," she said.

State government also would have to make changes if the bill passes.

A new office, similar to the driver license division, in the Department of Public Safety would be created to oversee the program. It would be tasked with running criminal background checks, issuing work permits, registering businesses that hire undocumented workers and maintaining a database of cardholders.

Public safety spokesman Brian Hyer said Robles talked with the department before drafting the bill. It has already started working with fiscal analysts to evaluate potential costs and impacts to present to lawmakers, he said.

"Bottom line is we're grateful to be part of the conversation," he said. "We'll do the best that we can to provide the input (lawmakers) need to make those decisions."

Robles' bill will be competing with likely more than a dozen immigration bills when the Legislature convenes in January.

e-mail: romboy@desnews.com

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