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Utah Legislature takes on immigration

Published: Thursday, Feb. 24 2011 12:10 a.m. MST

Senator Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake, speaks to a gathering about his proposed bill, SJR18. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Senator Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake, speaks to a gathering about his proposed bill, SJR18. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — State lawmakers tackled illegal immigration legislation in several forums Wednesday, including on the House floor, in a Senate committee and in news conferences.

And backers of at least two proposals touted them with heavy doses of the Utah Compact and Gov. Gary Herbert's six guiding principles on immigration reform.

To recap the day's events, the House passed HB116, Rep. Bill Wright's proposed guest worker program. The Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee advanced SB60, Sen. Luz Robles' plan for "accountability" cards.

Meantime, Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, pitched his comprehensive plan incorporating several bills regarding enforcement, a guest worker program, employer sanctions for hiring undocumented workers and in-state college tuition for illegal immigrants.

And a group, including a former U.S. attorney for Utah, held a news conference saying all the time and effort is for naught because most of the proposals will prove unconstitutional.

Lawmakers from the outset of the 2011 session have maintained they will pass illegal immigration legislation because Utahns are demanding it. With 11 working days left, they have their work cut out for them.

"This is far from done," said Senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City. "We're still knee-deep in it."

Bramble has worked behind the scenes with lawmakers and other stakeholders to draft a comprehensive bill since the Legislature convened four weeks ago. His bill takes from Robles, Wright, Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem and others.

Calling his plan the "Utah Compact" bill, Bramble talked about its concepts in a news conference, but did not reveal many details because it remains in draft form. It fits the governor's vision as well, he said.

Tenets in both the compact and Herbert's principles somewhat overlap. The compact, backed by business, civic and religious leaders, calls for a humane approach and opposes policies that unnecessarily separate families. Herbert favors greater accountability and not burdening taxpayers.

"We're looking for a Utah solution to deal with immigration here," Bramble said.

But Sandstrom and Chris Herrod, R-Provo, who are running their own complementary bills, have said they want no part of comprehensive legislation that includes a guest worker program. Such a plan, they say, would grant amnesty to illegal immigrants.

Like Sandstrom's measure, Bramble's would require police to check the immigration status of anyone suspected of a class A misdemeanor or felony. It does, however, remove the phrase "reasonable suspicion," ostensibly to eliminate racial profiling.

Robles' measure would require illegal immigrants of working age to register for an "accountability card" every two years. Applicants would undergo a criminal background check. Cardholders would also have to pass an English proficiency test within a year. All costs would be borne by the individual.

The bill prohibits businesses from hiring undocumented workers without valid permits.

The Utah Department of Public Safety would run the program and maintain a database of applicants, according to the bill.

Legislative fiscal analysts estimate it would cost the department $14.5 million to administer in the first two years. It would generate $29.2 million over that period in fees and taxes.

"This is basically, if not amnesty, legalizing the illegals," said Robert Wren of Utahns for Illegal Immigration Enforcement. "That's all we're doing."

Sutherland Institute head Paul Mero, who helped craft the Utah Compact, said Robles' bill "reflects the letter and spirit of that document" and fits with the governor's principles as well.

"SB60 is not an employment bill for undocumented immigrants. It's an accountability bill that protects our public safety and, in that process, permits people of good will to provide for their families until the federal government decides what it will do."

Mark Alvarez, an attorney and Latino community activist, who opposes most immigration reform as unconstitutional, says those invoking the compact are contradicting its call for federal solutions.

"It does not claim to be a blueprint for policy or even a guide for policy, though some people want to twist it into that," he said.

Alvarez joined former U.S. attorney for Utah Brent Tolman in urging the state to hold off on enacting laws on illegal immigration until the federal government tackles the issue.

"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."

SJR18 , sponsored by Sen. Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake, 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.

Wright's HB116 seeks a waiver from the federal government within the next two years to allow illegal immigrants to participate in a guest worker program.

"If we don't get something like this, we're going to paralyze our communities. We're going to paralyze our businesses in this state," Wright said. He made a plea for forgiving those who have entered the country illegally to work, saying everyone, including himself, makes mistakes.

"I suggest there are a lot of people that will want to comply and participate with this, if we quit entrapping them and give them a way to go forward and be good 'citizens,'" Wright said.

In House floor debate, Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo, said he's tired of hearing that illegal immigrants are good people. "They contribute somewhat," he said, but the real question is should they be treated better.

Herrod said entering the country illegally shouldn't be treated as if it's "not that big a deal. It is a big deal if you're waiting to come to this country … We punish those that actually go through the process."

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