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Former U.S. attorney urges Utah to hold off on illegal immigration bills

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 23 2011 2:01 p.m. MST

Sen. Ross Romero speaks during a press conference for the Coalition of Utah Progressives as they unveil SJR18 calling on the Utah Legislature to stop any and all state wide immigration bills at the Capitol in Salt Lake City Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2011.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — A former U.S. attorney for Utah is among those urging the state to hold off on enacting laws on illegal immigration until the federal government tackles the issue.

Brett Tolman stood with Sen. Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake, Hispanic community leaders  and others Wednesday in touting a proposed resolution as the only "rational and constitutional" step forward in the debate.

"I worry about the state taking up different legislation to send messages to Washington, D.C., without really sending the message: This is a federal issue. Get it solved," Tolman said. "The more you have states enacting legislation, the more you get what happened in Arizona."

Romero's SJR18 calls on Congress to address immigration reform and incorporate an increased and complementary role for states. It further recommends any enforcement, state-issued worker permits and guest worker programs be delayed until at least January 2013.

"Watch my lips. This is a federal issue. Begin there," said Archie Archuleta, Utah La Raza chairman.

The Utah House has already passed an enforcement-only bill and another penalizing businesses for hiring illegal immigrants. A guest worker program awaits a House vote and a proposal to create state-issued work permit is scheduled for a committee hearing today. Provisions in most of those bills require federal approval which observers say isn't likely to come.

"Now that all of the messaging has been done, and these unconstitutional bills are making their way through the legislative process, we feel it is time to bring forth sensible and realistic legislation," said Mike Picardi, spokesman for the Coalition of Utah Progressives.

"We have steadfastly maintained that this can only be dealt with at the federal level and we have presented this resolution as the only constitutional remedy Utah has."

Tolman, who worked in Washington prior to becoming U.S attorney for Utah, has seen both the legislative and enforcement side of illegal immigration. Passing unconstitutional laws like Arizona did, he said, has unintended consequences for Hispanics such as being viewed with skepticism and having their rights diminished.

"The debate, whether it's accurate or not, becomes the color of their skin versus the constitutional rights they may have," he said. "That's a dangerous precedent to be setting in every single state that's battling this issue."

A patchwork of illegal immigration bills across the country "creates massive confusion," he said.

Tolman said states should focus on the areas such as law enforcement where they have authority to act.

Romero said Utah lawmakers have already passed four bills the past few years that address illegal immigration. And legislation they're considering now won't fix anything in Utah or nationally.

"What we're doing is not going to change the dynamic in the nation," he said. "What we do in our state doesn't change anything. It simply moves the population from state to state."

Lawmakers also considering another resolution calling on Congress to take the lead on reform, but if it doesn't the power should be turned over to states. SJR12 passed the Senate and awaits a vote in the House.

E-mail: romboy@desnews.com

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