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Shurtleff says feds will likely intervene in lawsuit challenging Utah's immigration enforcement law

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 26 2011 1:43 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — The federal government will likely intervene in a lawsuit filed by civil rights groups over HB497, Utah's immigration enforcement measure.

"My gut says they probably will. I just get that feeling from them," said Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who met with top attorneys from the U.S. Department of Justice on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, during the Mountain West Immigration Summit at the City Center Marriott, Shurtleff said the federal government was under increasing pressure to join an existing lawsuit that challenges the constitutionality of the Utah law. The lawsuit was filed by the ACLU of Utah and the National Immigration Law Center. 

Utah's law requires police to verify the immigration status of people arrested for felonies and class A misdemeanors as well those booked into jail on class B and class C misdemeanors. The law also says officers may attempt to verify the status of someone detained for class B and class C misdemeanors.

The Utah law is qualitatively different than those of other states, in which the federal government has joined lawsuits. Shurtleff said the DOJ could send a strong message to state legislatures across the country by not intervening the Utah lawsuit because Utah's law is more moderate than those of other states.

While it was originally patterned after Arizona's controversial law, Shurtleff describes Utah's law as "Arizona-lite."

Shurtleff has met with DOJ attorneys in Washington, D.C., and in Salt Lake to explain Utah's law. Shurtleff said he believes that DOJ officials appreciate that Utah's law is different than measures passed in other states. 

Ideally, Shurtleff would like the DOJ to conclude "there's already litigation out there. We don't need to get involved."

Xochitl Hinojosa, DOJ public affairs specialist, said "the department continues to review the Utah immigration law, as well as other immigration-related laws that were passed in several states."

If the federal government does intervene, Shurtleff said he hope it does before a Dec. 2 court hearing before U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups.  State attorneys plan to ask U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups to allow Utah's immigration enforcement law to take effect.

Meanwhile, Utah Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, said Wednesday the attorney general "is trying to convince the federal government we're part of the solution, not the problem here."

Speaking on SLCCTV's new program, "Capitol Voices," the Senate leader said Utah officials "emphasized to them yesterday that the federal government has failed us. We feel this is true."

He said the federal waivers needed to implement a controversial guest worker program passed last session were part of the discussion. The waivers, Waddoups said, will "make  sense for Utah."

Both Waddoups and House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said on the program that they did not expect a repeal of the guest worker program next session, despite a call earlier this year for a repeal by delegates to the state GOP convention.

"Half the senators would go one way and half would go the other way," Waddoups said. He said he expected some sort of modification to the legislation, rather than an outright repeal or no action.

Lockhart said  it was tough to be sure because she hasn't polled House members, but agreed that "an outright full repeal is probably not as likely as amendments or changes to the legislation."

She said the House "hasn't changed significantly from last session, when we passed the legislation. Generally, people like to stick to their vote." 

CONTRIBUTING: Lisa Riley Roche, Dennis Romboy.

E-mail: marjorie@desnews.com

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