Utah short of workers or work ethic?

Attorney General, legal immigrant square off on Utah's guest worker bill

Published: Thursday, Oct. 8 2015 6:06 p.m. MDT

OREM — Don't tell Arturo Morales, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Mexico and head of Legal Immigrants for Immigration Law Reform, that Americans won't fill blue-collar jobs.

Morales, during a debate Tuesday over Utah's controversial guest worker bill, introduced his 11-year-old son, who on his break from school this past summer worked four to five hours a day for a landscaper. Morales' daughters have also worked weeding bedding plants, selling tacos and American flag shirts to help pay for a trip to Washington, D.C.

"Teach your child to work. That's what you can do for your country," Morales said in a noon debate over HB116 against Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, sponsored by the Women's Legislative Council of Utah County and  held at the Golden Corral. HB116, passed by the 2011 Utah Legislature, creates an enforcement mechanism and requires employers to verify the immigration status of employees they hire. 

Shurtleff applauded the initiative of the the Morales children. However, the impetus of HB116 was the inability for many Utah employers to hire the workers they need, particularly in the agricultural, construction and service industries.

Rep. Bill Wright, R-Holden, who is a dairy farmer, recognized the need for legislation when he could not find workers to milk his cows, Shurtleff said. The law, which will take effect in July 2013, sets up a process for undocumented immigrants living in Utah before May 11, 2011, to obtain a guest worker permit. Applicants would be fined $2,500 — $1,000 for overstaying a visa — for entering the country illegally. The program requires federal approval.

"No one could question Bill Wright's conservative credentials, especially as a fiscal conservative," Shurtleff said of the bill's sponsor.

Wright's plight has become commonplace among ranchers and farmers, Shurtleff said. The New York Times recently reported on a Colorado farmer who needed help harvesting corn and onions. He had hoped to hire locals who were out of work, surmising the wage he was offering — as much as $10.50 an hour — would be attractive.

Some workers lasted just six hours. "Twenty-five of them said specifically, according to farm records, that the work was too hard," the article said.

The state legislatures of Colorado, Georgia and Alabama have taken a hard line against illegal immigration. The result has been significant shortages of farm laborers, Shurtleff said.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, is attempting to address the issue through federal legislation that would help dairy and ranch owners maintain the foreign workers they need to keep their businesses operating year-round. Presently, temporary farm workers are only able to obtain seasonal visas.

Morales said construction contractors who hire American citizens or foreign workers with proper documentation simply cannot compete with contractors who hire illegal immigrants, in violation of federal law.

"We have many businesses that operate under they table, that pay cash to employees," he said.

Shurtleff reiterated that it is illegal to hire people who do not have proper documentation.

Both men agree that the federal government needs to enforce existing laws. Neither supports mass round ups and deportation of the millions of undocumented workers presently in the United States.

Immigration is, ultimately, a federal responsibility.

"They're not doing their job," Shurtleff said.

E-mail: marjorie@desnews.com

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