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In our opinion: Time for leadership

Published: Sunday, Jan. 9 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

Governor Gary Herbert talks with radio host Tony Yapias about immigration and other issues facing Utah during the program, "Pulso Latino at the studios of Excitos 1550 am in Salt Lake City Thursday, July 1, 2010.

Brian Nicholson, Deseret News

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Immigration reform is a complex problem in need of innovative solutions. It is a problem in need of leadership.

So was welfare reform. By the late 1980s, federal welfare assistance was a broken and discredited program. Credible accounts of fraud, dependency and waste had eroded public confidence in what had been a well-intentioned social safety-net.

It was in this environment that Gov. Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin stepped forward to craft comprehensive reform for this ailing federal program.

By seeking appropriate waivers and latitude from the federal government, Wisconsin was able to experiment with "workfare" programs aimed at reducing dependency and fraud. Wisconsin's innovation became the Republican model for comprehensive welfare reform at the federal level that was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996.

Today, our nation's system for orderly immigration is in shambles. The violence at our country's southern border is alarming, as are the criminal networks that traffic in human lives, drugs, guns and false documents. Too many people of goodwill, who are seeking to improve their families' plight by working where there is a demand, are now caught up in abusive and shadowy activity.

Recently, many of Utah's community and civic leaders embraced a set of guiding principles to address the immigration problem known as the Utah Compact. The Utah Compact states prominently that immigration is first and foremost a federal policy issue. But it further urges "state leaders to adopt reasonable policies addressing immigrants in Utah."

Just as strong gubernatorial leadership in Wisconsin helped point the way toward path-breaking policy innovation that eventually provided nationwide reform in welfare, we believe that the moment is right for strong gubernatorial leadership in Utah to craft policy innovations that could provide a model for nationwide reform on immigration.

Gubernatorial leadership is required to capture what is best in the diversity of emerging approaches. Gubernatorial leadership is also necessary because, just as happened in welfare reform, meaningful innovation will require some negotiated latitude with federal rules. Such formal waivers would not eliminate a federal responsibility — they would formally acknowledge the federal role, seek proper approvals and create accountability on the part of the federal government that would have to sign-off on any plan. Because the governor would conduct such negotiations, the governor needs to be fully invested in the solution that emerges.

We congratulate Gov. Gary Herbert for opening up and cooling down the statewide debate about immigration. His summer roundtable brought relevant stakeholders to the table and created a forum for civil dialogue about these emotional issues. In the wake of his roundtable, we have now had a period of policy ferment where some of the best thinking in the state has focused on how to address the multiplicity of concerns raised by illegal immigration in our community.

Now the concrete proposals for comprehensive reform are emerging. We are encouraged by proposals that, through criminal background checks and improved documentation, would improve public safety. We think it is appropriate to require a substantial fine to acknowledge culpability. We see promising ideas to provide thoughtful job protection for citizens. We are pleased to see policies that encourage linguistic and social assimilation. We are optimistic that, through fines, fees and improved collection of taxes from previously undocumented workers, that reform would actually enhance rather than deplete state coffers.

We encourage Herbert, who has been rewarded by the electorate for his strong fiscal and managerial leadership during challenging economic times, to now provide strong moral leadership on immigration. By thoughtfully pulling together the best ideas that have been generated through extended public debate, the governor can improve public safety while also helping those families of goodwill who are living within the shadows of our society to step into the light.

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