1 of 7
Luis Sanchez, Saturno/TH
A former school bus loaded with about 50 people now serves as transport for would-be migrants headed for the crossing point in Las Chepas, Mexico, south of New Mexico.

Immigration reform is emotional, polarizing and politically tricky as was demonstrated at a Utah forum he hosted, says Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, a man hated by anti-immigration groups because he helps lead the fight for President Bush's immigration-reform proposals.

"A man there said, 'We should kick out everyone who is illegal and stop them from coming in at the border.' I said, 'How are you going to stop them? Shoot them? Do you really want to kill them?' "

Cannon said the man replied to his shock, "Yes. You don't have to shoot them all. You only have to kill a couple, and the rest will quit coming."

"I looked at the audience," Cannon said, "and about a third of them were nodding their heads in agreement."

Cannon added, "I don't think that is representative of the mainstream in Utah or America."

The congressman believes most, like President Bush and himself, are more compassionate, wanting illegals to be able to earn legal status and maybe even citizenship over time. They also want to establish a system that would allow needed foreign workers to come to America temporarily.

Congress is expected to debate such solutions beginning this fall, with Bush and GOP leaders vowing to pass a comprehensive reform bill within a year. Many states are not waiting for a federal solution and are pushing ahead with steps of their own.

For example, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson recently declared a state of emergency in four counties along the border because of violence, drug smuggling and increased numbers of undocumented immigrants. It allowed him to free up extra money for everything from fighting drug smuggling to beefing up state border security.

Also, Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. pledged, in a recent visit with Mexico President Vicente Fox, to take a lead with the help of the Western Governors Association to find solutions to immigration issues.

Big fix

At least 100 bills, designed to solve various aspects of immigration problems, have been introduced in Congress so far this year. Leaders have vowed to try to pass one big comprehensive reform bill within a year.

"The real question is, what will be in it?" Cannon asked.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., has vowed to bring up such a bill this fall. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said the Senate likely won't consider it until next year.

Vowing to pass such a bill is ambitious, Cannon says, because the issue "splits people in both parties, and even splits regions."

For example, Cannon says two of his friends in Congress are Sens. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. "But we just don't talk about immigration anymore because we disagree so strongly."

Also making passage of any reform difficult is that Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., leads a coalition of 70 House members who vow to oppose any legislation that benefits in any way people who enter the country illegally.

The heart of any comprehensive reform bill is expected to be some form of a "guest worker" program, which Bush is pushing hard.

The idea is to match foreign workers with employers who cannot find U.S. labor to fill their jobs. It would allow aliens, including those already here illegally, to apply for a renewable, legal stay for a certain period. The period varies among proposals between three and six years.

Bush has said if foreigners had such a program available, he believes most would enter legally for a time, save up money and then return home. But staying permanently and earning citizenship could also be allowed. Critics say it may simply lead more businesses to seek cheap foreign labor.

Amnesty going

A major change over the past year, according to Cannon and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is Bush supporters are moving away from anything that looks even remotely like amnesty for illegals, or anything else that could reward them ahead of others waiting to enter the country legally.

Last year Bush had initially proposed allowing illegals here now to pay a fee, and with it obtain legal status. With time and good behavior, it could lead to citizenship.

Critics complained that was too close to a blanket amnesty. They said it would encourage more illegal immigration with the expectation of more amnesty (or legal status with a minimal fee) in the future.

Now, Hatch, a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee which oversees immigration law, says of Bush supporters, "We are sincere in finding a solution that will work, that will involve less than amnesty. A lot of us are opposed to amnesty."

Cannon added that most in Congress now seem to want to require illegals to return to their home countries at least temporarily and re-enter legally as part of a process to earn legal status in the United States. "But that could create financial hardship depending on where their home countries are," he said.

So, Cannon said, some proposals still would allow illegals to pay fines and/or offer public service in lieu of traveling home.

A Deseret Morning News/KSL-TV poll by Dan Jones & Associates shows Utahns may be slightly less concerned about amnesty than are critics.

When asked, "Do you favor or oppose a program that would allow undocumented immigrants now living in America to remain in the country and earn citizenship without penalty," 57 percent said they favored that while 39 percent opposed it.

No line jumping

Cannon said discussion among congressional members also indicates that most want to ensure reform will recognize that "being here illegally will not get you at the head of the line for citizenship over those who come later" legally.

In short, undocumented aliens would start at the back of the line whenever they come forward to seek legal status, but the sooner they do so, the farther in line they would be.

Also, Cannon said various steps are also being discussed that could help prevent giving welfare, government-paid health care or extra government services to temporary guest workers.

That includes, he said, looking at possibly requiring employers of "guest workers" to ensure they will have health insurance, or to require workers to have "health savings accounts." Cannon said that would cut down on complaints by some states and hospitals about spending on illegals and other immigrants.

(The Deseret Morning News/KSL-TV poll showed 79 percent feel illegals should receive emergency hospital care even if they do not have health insurance or cannot afford care. Twenty-six percent say the federal government should pay for it; 11 percent say the state should; 6 percent say hospitals should; and 26 percent said charities should.)

Cannon said reform may also include more sanctions against employers who do not pay Social Security taxes because that shows they know employees are illegal.

Cannon also expects reforms to address crime and lack of assimilation which he thinks is at the root of resentment by many anti-immigration groups.

"What we may do is end up revising the standards for citizenship," including having more consistent standards among states for how much English new citizens must speak and how well they understand the culture, he said. "I have known people who could not pass the English test in Utah and went to California because it was easier."

Cannon said, "If you want to be a citizen, you will likely have to go through a serious process. You will have to become American, not just be here. You will have to speak the language and learn how the culture works."

He expects that reform will require anyone wanting to enter or stay in the country to provide fingerprints, go through criminal background checks, and to prove over a long period that they are law abiding — or they would be deported quickly.

Reform smorgasbord

Cannon and Hatch note that myriad other reform ideas are floating around Congress, including some they are pushing themselves.

"But I don't think any individual bills for reform are going to pass. They have to be included in the comprehensive bill," Hatch said.

Among such ideas are:

• Passing The "DREAM Act," sponsored by Hatch and Cannon. It clarifies that states may offer in-state college tuition rates to children of illegal aliens. Utah already does, but the program's viability has been clouded by some national court decisions.

The Deseret Morning News/KSL-TV poll shows that 60 percent favor giving in-state tuition to Utah colleges for undocumented immigrant students who graduated from Utah high schools. Thirty-seven percent were opposed.

• Requiring employers to check the legality of new hires. This would be helped by possibly issuing tough-to-counterfeit, machine-readable Social Security cards. They would be matched against an employment-eligibility database at the Homeland Security Department.

• Requiring employers to verify the validity of their employees' Social Security numbers is favored by 93 percent in the Morning News poll, and opposed by 5 percent.

• Providing more readily available worker permits and visas. (That is favored by 67 percent in the Dseret Morning News/KSL-TV poll and opposed by 31 percent.)

• Doing away with giving automatic citizenship to anyone born in America (even if their parents are illegal aliens). Some illegal aliens rear those children here hoping they will eventually be able to sponsor them for permanent legal status and citizenship.

Cannon says doing away with that citizenship provision would require amending the Constitution. "I don't think that is in the cards," he said. (The Dseret Morning News/KSL-TV poll said 51 percent oppose automatic citizenship for children of illegals born here, while 47 percent favor it.)

• Beefing up border enforcement, including proposals to double the number of border patrol agents in coming years.

Recent federal reform

Some reform already has arrived. Earlier this year, Congress tacked many immigration reforms onto the end of a military spending bill.

That included prohibiting states from issuing driver's licenses to illegal aliens; making driver's licenses more counterfeit-proof; making it easier for the Homeland Security Department to waive all legal requirements in order to build barriers along the Mexican border; and making it easier to exclude or deport anyone deemed to be supporting terrorism.

Changes also made it a bit tougher to win asylum for claims of persecution but lifted a cap that limited how many refugees would be allowed annually.

Changes also raised the annual caps on visas for people who hold temporary jobs, and increased the number of visas available to foreign nurses. It also increased the number of visas available to highly skilled workers from Australia.

State efforts

States — and sometimes even cities or even citizen groups — are also attempting steps and reforms of their own.

Maybe the most noticeable was Richardson's move to declare that border counties in his state face "an emergency condition with potential catastrophic consequences" because of violence, drug smuggling and other problems attributable to illegal immigration and illegal trade.

His declaration allowed emergency spending and steps to beef up local law enforcement against illegal immigration, drug smuggling and even cattle rustling.

In California, Assembly member Ray Haynes has gathered signatures to put on the ballot an initiative next year calling for the state to patrol its own borders and to enforce federal immigration laws itself. He argues the federal government isn't doing the job well enough.

In Arizona, a volunteer civilian patrol of "Minutemen" spent weeks guarding 40 miles of the border. Volunteers are again along the border this month.

In New Ipswitch, N.H., Police Chief W. Garrett Chamberlain came across a young Mexican who admitted he was in the country illegally. When federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers told him to forget about it, he cited the man for trespassing, saying he was in America and Ipswich illegally.

As states and localities — not to mention the federal government — are looking at such steps, Utah Gov. Huntsman pledged to Mexico's Fox to try to lead out with the Western Governors Association to wade through them and to find true immigration solutions.

Huntsman has said Western states need to help the country move toward "a more realistic and manageable flow of labor to specific job opportunities . . . and also expediting the whole visa system, which today is broken. It is slow. It is cumbersome. It has a cap in place."

Utahns applaud such moves by Huntsman. When the Dseret Morning News/KSL-TV poll asked how important is it that Huntsman focus on immigration issues, 85 percent said it was important, while 13 percent said it was not.

Some Utah lawmakers are also talking about revisiting benefits recently given to illegal immigrants.

Rep. Glenn Donnelson, R-North Ogden, plans to sponsor legislation to repeal in-state tuition and driving-privilege cards for illegal immigrants. He also looks at the possibility of legislation mirroring a federal bill to require employers to verify employees' documentation — a step that's optional.

Also, Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, met with members of the Utah Minuteman Project, an anti-immigration group, and agreed to look at some of their ideas for legislation.

"They've got a lot of good ideas," Buttars said. "I agree with them that if you're going to be in this country, you shouldn't be illegal . . . We should have a way to verify people working in the U.S., that they are legal."


E-mail: [email protected]