J. Scott Applewhite, AP
SALT LAKE CITY — Yolanda Francisco-Nez saw two American flags flying outside Wednesday and was reminded of the Pledge of Allegiance that promises "liberty and justice for all."
"Now is the time for immigration reform to occur," the coordinator for the Human Rights Commission in Salt Lake City said.
She was one of more than a dozen business, religious, government, law enforcement and community leaders who met Wednesday at the Salt Lake Main Library to find common ground on comprehensive immigration reform and plan ways to move forward if federal immigration reform fails to pass.
"We've talked in a very forward-leaning way about what immigration reform means for us in our community and for society," said Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, who convened the round-table discussion in response to a prompt from the White House.
Salt Lake's discussion occurred one day after the Senate voted to allow debate about the federal comprehensive immigration reform bill, S.744.
Comprehensive immigration reform is part of a bipartisan effort by four Republican and four Democratic senators — also known as the Gang of Eight — that would create a way for people living in the country illegally to gain citizenship and strengthen border security.
The Salt Lake meeting included government leaders from both sides of the political aisle, Republican Summit County Councilman David Ure, Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake, and Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake.
"When it comes to an issue like immigration, this should in no way be a partisan issue," Becker said. "This is about our communities. It's about people in our society and it's about opportunity."
Weiler said he is an advocate of states' rights but believes immigration reform is "solidly within (the federal government's) purview."
Although not everyone may be satisfied by the bill as it stands, "compromise is the way that we get things done in a democratic society," Becker said.
During the 90-minute meeting, the group came up with two conclusions, according to Becker. The first, that the federal immigration laws are broken. The second, that Congress needs to pass comprehensive reform "as soon as possible."
Discussions focused on the effects of reform on Utah's communities, economy and individuals. A central theme was "realizing (the) human potential" in Utah, Becker said. "With immigration reform, we will get the full benefit of members of our communities."
He said education and families came up as priorities in the meeting as well as the agreement that the economy will profit by increasing opportunities for those who are not legal citizens of the United States.
Immigrants not yet authorized to live in the United States comprised 3.8 percent of the population in Utah in 2010, according to Pew Hispanic research. That's compared to 3.7 percent, or more than 11 million, nationwide. That group also comprised 5.4 percent of Utah's and 5.2 percent of the national labor forces.
This meeting occurred on the same day that 400 immigrants were naturalized in Salt Lake City.
"Thank goodness," Becker said of the naturalizations. "I'm sure they went through quite a path to get here."
If federal immigration reform fails to pass, Becker told the Deseret News, the city will do its best to help people feel secure, and to provide educational opportunities to residents regardless of their citizenship status.
"Immigration reform is critical to helping us be successful as a city," he said.
Robles said there are those in Congress who are finding excuses to not pass the bill. She believes federal immigration policies are "archaic" and need updating.
Utah's approach to immigration is unmatched by other states, she said, citing the comprehensive immigration package passed in 2011.
As it stands now, federal immigration reform allows those who are not in the United States legally to apply for citizenship within 13 years, would allocate funding to block off the border between the United States and Mexico, would require business owners in the U.S. to check the immigration status of employees and would allow for short-term visas to bring in high-tech and low-skilled workers.
To qualify, those applying for citizenship who did not enter the U.S. by legal means would have 10 years of temporary legal status, need to pass a criminal background check, learn English, and pay taxes, fees and $2,000 in fines.
Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., introduced amendments to the bill Wednesday that they said would strengthen the proposed reform. They include preventing noncitizens from receiving welfare benefits and payment of back and current taxes owed by those applying for citizenship. Those who are working toward legal citizenship will have to wait five years before they are eligible for federally funded healthcare. The final amendment inhibits undocumented workers from claiming Social Security benefits.
“These are thoughtful amendments that ensure a basic fairness for both those wanting to become American citizens, and for American taxpayers. Senator Rubio understands that, and I hope our colleagues join us in supporting them,” Hatch said.
This was only one of several bumps in progress during hearings Wednesday, according to CNN. Sens. John Grassley, R-Iowa, John Cornyn, R-Texas, also proposed amendments. These would strengthen border security between the U.S. and Mexico. Cornyn's amendment would require 90 percent of illegal border crossings to be prevented by the government before the other reform items related to immigrants could begin. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, called this amendment a "poison pill" for comprehensive reform.
On Sunday, Utah business owners called for comprehensive immigration reform in a full-page advertisement in the Deseret News. They asked the state's lawmakers to "move forward with what is practical and in the best interest of the nation." The Salt Lake Chamber and the Partnership for a New American Economy joined with almost 50 others in signing a letter addressed to Utah senators and representatives.
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