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Commission studying illegal immigration impacts

Published: Monday, Aug. 13 2012 9:04 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — A subcommittee of the Utah Commission on Immigration and Migration has been tasked to narrow down issues for a possible study on the impacts of illegal immigration in Utah.

The commission has not yet developed a request for proposals for a study, nor is it clear how such research would be funded since the Utah Legislature has appropriated only about $10,000 for the commission's work. 

"I'm guessing that's just about all gone now," said outgoing Utah Senate President Mike Waddoups, R-Taylorsville. 

Earlier estimates placed the cost of the study around at least $50,000.

"I don't want them to think that there's an open checkbook," Waddoups said.

Regardless the cost, some including Ron Mortensen, a retired foreign service officer and a founder of the Utah Coalition on Illegal Immigration, said previous state-level studies have not measured impacts of identity theft and impacts on employment.

Better systems are needed to determine who receives services funded by federal, state and local governments and the associated costs of undocumented immigrants' presence in the United States, he said.  

Absent a formal study, the commission heard wide-ranging public testimony Monday on topics ranging from undocumented immigrants' impacts on labor to their effect on crime rates.

A number of speakers said relatively inexpensive immigrant labor was undercutting the businesses of construction contractors who hire people authorized to work in the United States.

Cory Williamson, the owner of a masonry business, said competitors pay some workers just $10 an hour. He has traditionally paid his employees, all of whom are legal workers, some $20 to $25 an hour.

"How do you compete?" he asked commission members.

While the presence of low-wage, presumably undocumented workers hurts his business, Williamson said he also received some contracts because he hires legal workers.

Still, he worries about the impacts. On many job sites, workers primarily speak Spanish, which can pose safety concerns. "You can't communicate with everyone on the job," he said.

Richard Carr, representing the local bricklayers and tile setters union, said instead of referring to these workers as "undocumented immigrants," they should be referred to as "exploited workers."

Carr said he has heard multiple complaints from workers who are paid substandard wages. Many are not paid for all the hours they work and employers threaten to turn them over to immigration officials if they complain.

Carr said he is working with state and federal regulators to enforce labor laws against the employers.

Others testified about immigrants' impact on crime, including John Bowers, whose son Jonathan had been killed by a drunken driver. Bowers described the man as a Mexican national although it was unclear whether the man was in the United States illegally.

Even so, Bowers said the impacts of victims of crime would not be fully captured in any cost-benefit analysis commissioned by the state.

The driver who struck his son's vehicle fled the scene, acting with "careless disregard," Bowers said. Jonathan Bowers died eight days after the accident, which occurred in May 2011.

"The only thing he cared about was getting drunk and getting his cheap thrill," said Bowers of the driver, fighting back emotion.

Seth Ure, of the Utah Attorney General's Office, gave the commission copies of a BYU research paper on the impacts of undocumented immigrants on crime in Utah.

The paper concluded that violent crime rates are at their lowest level in 30 years. This period coincides with a demographic shift of Hispanics making up 3 percent of the state population in 1978 compared to 11 percent in 2008.

"We can therefore presume that the rise in Hispanics does not coincide with a rise in violent crimes," wrote researchers Charlie Morgan, John P. Hoffman and Michele E. Enciso-Bendall.

E-mail: marjorie@desnews.com

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