SALT LAKE CITY — As more states consider stronger immigration laws, political, business and religious leaders from throughout the West examined the economic impact of enforcement measures and guest-worker programs during a one-day summit Wednesday in Salt Lake City.
Participants generally opposed the strict enforcement laws passed in Alabama and Arizona. Instead, they pointed to a package of bills passed in Utah that included an enforcement law modeled on Arizona's but balanced by a program that will allow illegal immigrants to work and pay taxes in Utah if they register with the state.
The law does not protect them from federal prosecution; the state is looking for a federal solution before the law goes into effect in 2013.
The Utah guest worker program was a key component of the Utah Compact, an initiative pushed as a more compassionate way to handle immigration.
"The success of the Utah Compact has put the spotlight on Utah," Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said. "Now we have an opportunity to affect the national immigration debate in a really positive way."
In Idaho, lawmakers have backed away from passing their own immigration laws, in part because of the potential impact on the state's agricultural businesses. That is preferable to passing laws that are not "well thought out," said Brent Olmstead, a lobbyist for the Idaho Business Coalition on Immigration Reform.
"We'd like to see at minimum a guest worker program where the supply of that labor meets the demand, and addresses in some way the workers who are already here," Olmstead said.
The impact of new laws has been immediately evident in Georgia, where the agricultural industry estimates it has lost at least $300 million and as much as $1 billion since laws targeting illegal immigrants were passed earlier this year.
A federal judge has put parts of Georgia's law on hold, including provisions allowing police to check the immigration status of people without proper identification. But other aspects of the law went into effect this summer, such as making it a felony in Georgia to use false information or documentation when applying for a job.
Migrant workers have rapidly disappeared in the state, said Paul Bridges, the mayor of Uvalda in the southern part of Georgia. When the state laws are coupled with federal immigration programs such as Secure Communities that have increased the number of deportations, legal and illegal immigrants are reluctant to work.
"Some of the workers don't have legal documents and some of them do. But the enforcement-only laws scare all of them," Bridges said. "Someone here legally doesn't want to work in a field or ride in a van with somebody illegal, because it could force them to defend themselves in court" if they're lumped in with the illegal workers.
Warren Klug of the Aspen, Colorado, Chamber Resort Association emphasized that the importance of immigrants extends beyond the "hard labor" jobs. There are also many immigrants getting higher education degrees legally who are forced to leave the country and take their skills elsewhere.
Others scheduled to speak during the summit are representatives of companies based in Idaho, Colorado and Utah as well, as religious leaders from Wyoming and Washington state.