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In our opinion: A sad day for Utah

Published: Wednesday, July 1 2009 12:04 a.m. MDT

Immigration law is a federal matter. All sides seem to agree on that. But when it comes to whether Utah needs to make up for a lack of will in Washington to deal with it, a lot of folks let emotion and hearsay rule the day.

Which is why Utah's notorious SB81, an immigration bill that promises to harm everyone in the state and that may, to a large extent, be found to be unconstitutional before it gets too old, becomes law today.

This law is not compassionate. It promises to pull apart families of undocumented workers who came here seeking a better life and who contribute to the tax base. It turns anyone with brown skin into a suspect and is sure to breed racism.

It is costly. It calls for local police agencies to enforce federal law (although many Utah police agencies have said they will decline to do so), and it provides no money to help with such enforcement. It requires public agencies to screen employees, contractors and the recipients of benefits and yet, again, it provides no funding for this. Local governments already are reeling from a loss of revenue due to the recession. Now comes this burden.

The law will make it harder for U.S. Census officials to get an accurate count of Utahns next year. It will make illegal residents unduly suspicious of government officials, even though census workers are forbidden by law to investigate or report crimes. Illegal aliens should be counted along with legal residents. A complete head count will ensure that Utah receives the federal funding it needs to handle its population and that sales-tax receipts are distributed fairly. Ten years ago, the census undercounted Utah Hispanics by an estimated 50,000, which would have been more than enough to give the state a fourth congressional representative.

The law places extra burdens on business owners, requiring them to use an E-verify system for which many of them lack training. Elsewhere, this system has been shown to reject legal residents by mistake. The result will be yet another drag on a struggling economy.

It will make Utah less safe. Illegal immigrants will be afraid to report crimes because doing so might mean they will be deported.

Most importantly, the law seeks to correct problems that don't exist. A recent Sutherland Institute study found that only 3.9 percent of inmates in county jails in Utah are undocumented, as are less than 5 percent of inmates in state prisons. Illegal immigrants do not commit crimes to a larger degree than others. Most are as law abiding as other Utahns. Crossing the border illegally is a minor offense, on the order of a speeding ticket.

A much better approach would have been to set up some sort of system by which these workers could enter and leave the state legally. That is the approach the federal government needs to take. We are astounded that all sides in this debate cannot see the wisdom of a system that would control and monitor the influx of workers across the border, eliminating the crimes committed by immigration traffickers and making it easier to spot and punish the genuine criminals.

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals may soon strike down part of an Oklahoma law that mirrors Utah's new law. Other lawsuits are in the planning stages. Utah could end up paying a heavy toll economically, and in other ways, for passing this law. The best idea would be for lawmakers to begin laying plans to repeal it as soon as possible.

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