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Utah House passes Sandstrom's immigration enforcement bill

Published: Friday, Feb. 18 2011 5:12 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — A controversial illegal immigration enforcement bill modeled after Arizona legislation passed Friday in the House.

HB70, sponsored by Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem, was approved 58-15 after nearly two hours of often impassioned debate on the House floor. Two Democrats joined the GOP majority and one Republican crossed party lines in the decidedly partisan vote.

It now moves to the Senate where there's an effort to put together a comprehensive bill that may combine enforcement with a work permit program.

"I think it will probably get held up in the Senate for awhile while we get it all worked out," said Senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City.

Of the enforcement-only bill itself, Jenkins said it has been "watered down enough" that it could fare well in the Senate.

Sandstrom has repeatedly said he wants no part of legislation that has a guest worker component because the result is amnesty for illegal immigrants. He said he doesn't want to be in a position to have to vote against his own bill.

HB70 would require police officers to verify the legal status of people detained for class A misdemeanor and felony offenses if the officer has "reasonable suspicion" they are in the country illegally. Those people would be handed to U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement for deportation proceedings.

Officers would not have to check the status of those suspected of class B and class C misdemeanors, but could if they chose to.

Sandstrom said the bill, which he calls a Utah not an Arizona solution, "is definitely targeted at the hardened criminal elements in our communities that need to leave."

He called on the representatives not to shirk their duty to protect Utahns "because of some idea of compassion" for those in the country illegally.

"What should be most important to us is representing the citizens of the United States of America, not a foreign national who has willfully and wantonly broken our laws," Sandstrom said.

Several lawmakers spoke about the lack of compassion for those attempting to enter the country legally.

"Are we going to determine who gets to come to this country by their willingness to break the law?" asked Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo. 

"The fact of the matter is we are a 'sanctuary' state," he said. "We have laws on the books that we do not enforce, that cities blatantly disregard."

Opponents, however, called the bill divisive.

Rep. Mark Wheatley, D-Murray, a member of the Legislature's Latino caucus, said it encourages racial profiling and will "result in discrimination against Latinos and others who appear to be foreign."

House Minority Leader Dave Litvack, D-Salt Lake, warned the bill would be selectively enforced by local governments, "which feeds the fear of profiling."

Litvack also said the bill would not be a deterrent to illegal immigration. "It's not. It's just catch and release," he said, because jails don't have room to house those detained under the bill.

The bill was amended to take out a provision that would have allowed citizens to sue local law enforcement agencies for noncompliance. Sandstrom said the amendment does not gut his bill because it still requires authorities in all jurisdictions to check legal status.

House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said the amendment helped her decide to vote for the bill. Lockhart said she and other representatives were concerned about "citizens monopolizing the courts with claims."

The speaker said this won't be the only immigration proposal considered this session. "There are a lot of other proposals out there that are worthy of discussion," she said. "We'll bring those forward as well. I hope we would look at the package of immigration issues."

House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden, said the GOP caucus is evenly split over whether some sort of guest worker legislation should also be passed this session. "There a lot of  people who would like to see us move in a little more compassionate direction," Dee said. 

Sandstrom's bill has been a source of controversy since he made it public last August. The Utah Minuteman Project, 9/12ers and tea party activists have aligned themselves with the measure. Latino organizations, the Salt Lake Chamber, Salt Lake Conventions and Visitors Bureau are fighting it.

The representative has held numerous meetings with groups on both sides and said he has modified the bill at least 10 times as a result.

Several Latino groups scheduled an "urgent" meeting Sunday to organize a campaign letting legislators know they oppose HB70 and support the Utah Compact, which affirms Utah as a welcoming and business-friendly state.

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