Senate compromise on immigration reform cheered, jeered in Utah

Published: Tuesday, April 16 2013 6:45 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Immigration reforms proposed by a bipartisan group of senators, which include a path to citizenship for some 11 million people in the country illegally, were well-received Tuesday by many Utahns who have been key figures in the immigration debate.

"Undocumented immigrants have long waited for this day and so far they like what they hear. Most immigrants want to work without the fear of being deported. Many will be able to do so," said Tony Yapias, longtime immigrant activist.

The legislation would create tens of thousands of new visas for international workers in low-skilled jobs and spend billions on new border control technology and the hiring of 3,500 additional federal agents.

Most such immigrants who arrived in the country before Dec. 31, 2011, could gain immediate “registered provisional” status after paying a $500 fine and back taxes, under the proposal. This option would not be open to people convicted of a felony or three misdemeanor offenses.

People with provisional status could then apply for permanent resident status in 10 years after paying additional fees, according to summaries of the plan. Three years later, they could apply for citizenship.

Meanwhile, farm workers would have a faster path to citizenship. They could seek a green card after five years, a move intended to stabilize the agriculture workforce. 

However, American citizens would no longer be able to sponsor siblings for eventual U.S. citizenship, a move backers say would help stabilize the immigration system. Visas for highly skilled, well-educated workers would nearly double, which would help the nation's high-tech and biomedical industries.

Former Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said he was optimistic about prospects of the Gang of Eight proposal after meeting with each of the senators involved in the negotiations.

"I think it's actually possible" that the reforms will become law, Shurtleff said. "It looks like it's a reality. It's very exciting."

But others were not as enthused, such as Utah Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who released a statement Tuesday afternoon noting that the full details of the proposal had not yet been released.

"It is unfortunate that we have so little time to digest and evaluate such an expansive piece of legislation before we hold our initial committee hearing. As senators, it is our duty to read the bill and fully understand the impact it will have on our immigration system before casting votes.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled hearings on the bill Friday and Monday.

Ron Mortensen, co-founder of the Utah Coalition on Illegal Immigration, said the proposal is flawed in that it grants legal status to people before the nation secures its borders.

"We've been here before. They were going to secure the border in 1986," referring to immigration reforms instituted during the Reagan administration.

"We're still waiting for them to fulfill that promise."

But others, such as David Morales, a "Dreamer" who is one plaintiff in the ongoing legal challenge to HB497, Utah's immigration enforcement law passed by the Legislature in 2011, said he's "pretty content" with the proposed federal reforms, particularly the focus on youth brought to the country illegally by their parents. They would be able to apply for a green card in five years and citizenship immediately thereafter.

"I'm happy with it. I know it's going to benefit a lot of people. We should focus on the positive, not the negative," he said.

Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Burbank, who has drawn criticism from conservatives for his refusal to enforce state immigration laws he has said could inject bias into law enforcement's interaction with the public, said he believe the compromise takes "a realistic approach" to the nation's immigration challenges.

While some see the issue primarily through the national security lens, Burbank said immigration is primarily a human issue. "The notion of kicking everyone out the door is not realistic," he said. 

Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams said introduction of the bill was an encouraging sign.

“It’s past time for national immigration reform that promotes national security, keeps families together, ensures fairness to taxpayers and protects human dignity,” he said.

Shurtleff said Utah's leadership role in the development of humane immigration reform is often raised in national forums. The Utah Compact, he said, was the first guiding document that brought together "Bibles, badges and business."

While other states adopted their own versions of the compact, most supporters have acknowledged that the federal government needs to address its broken, outdated immigration system, he said.

"We always knew all the state and regional compacts were not the solution. It had to be federal legislation," he said.

Shurtleff said it is remarkable that a divided Congress, which cannot agree on a budget, appears to be coalescing around a compromise on the long-divisive issue of immigration.

"If they can come together on this issue, it would be extraordinary," Shurtleff said.

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