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Senate panel tabled guest worker repeal

Published: Thursday, Feb. 16 2012 1:49 p.m. MST

Skies are sunny in as the Utah State Legislature meets in the capitol in Salt Lake City Friday, Jan. 27, 2012.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — A Senate committee on Thursday put on ice a bill intended to repeal Utah's guest worker law.

Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, said his SB157 was an attempt to "remedy an error made by this body," referring to the passage of HB116 during the 2011 Legislature.

"This bill unrings the bell rung last session. I think we made a mistake when we passed 116," he said.

Despite arguments from Urquhart and members of the public that HB116 was unconstitutional, would invite an influx of illegal immigrants to Utah and would put employers who hire undocumented workers in conflict with federal law, the Senate Workforce Services and Community and Economic Development Committee voted unanimously to table it.

Urquhart said the vote likely reflects the Utah Legislature's lack of appetite to address immigration issues during the 2012 session. Another bill, HB300, that would repeal and replace the guest worker law has yet to be assigned to a committee.

But his constituents "want to see more enforcement" of existing laws, he said.

Utah's attempts to address immigration issues resulted from the federal government's inaction on immigration reform. The nation's current status, Urquhart said, is "untenable."

"I think what we did was, we stepped in and did something unconstitutional," Urquhart said.

HB116 puts the status of workers who came to the United States illegally above those attempting to work through legal channel to obtain authorization to work.

"For a group of policymakers to say were going to bless that act, I think that undermines the rule of law. If government doesn't recognize the rule of law, I think that sends a strong message," that they don't have to abide the rule of law either, Urquhart said.

Committee chairman Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, the Senate sponsor of HB116, acknowledged that Urquhart's constituents have "strong feelings in this area." Washington County was one of the first local governments in Utah to pass an ordinance that requires business owners in the unincorporated county to use E-Verify to check the legal working status of employees or risk suspension or revocation of their county business licenses.

"I believe your intentions are sincere. You are trying to do the right thing," Reid said. "Of course, you and I disagree on what's right here."

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said negotiations with federal officials are ongoing to obtain federal cooperation needed to allow HB116 to go into effect.

HB116 is neither a naturalization bill nor an amnesty bill, Shurtleff said. It attempts to do "something practical to protect our citizens."

"The purpose of the bill is to deal with the very problems (the nation is experiencing) based on the abject failure of the United States government to do its job," Shurtleff said.

HB116 established a program in the Utah Department of Public Safety for illegal immigrants to obtain a work permit in Utah. It also imposed fines up to $2,500 on those who apply for the permit.

HB116 requires businesses with 15 or more employees to verify their immigration status, although opponents have said the enforcement measure has no teeth.

Two Republican delegates reminded lawmakers of the resolutions passed at numerous county political conventions urging lawmakers to repeal HB116.

Keri Witte, a Republican delegate from Utah County, said the bill "rewards illegal immigration. It makes Utah a magnet and a sanctuary state."

Brandon Beckham, a Republican state delegate from Orem, said polls have indicated bi-partisan support for repealing HB116.

"The people of Utah want us to enforce the laws on the books. That's what they want," Beckham said.

E-mail: marjorie@desnews.com

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