When it comes to illegal immigration this legislative session, lawmakers will have their hands full as they evaluate a slate of bills and decide what role the state should play in enforcing federal immigration law.
If a new Deseret Morning News/KSL-TV poll is any indication, public opinion seems to be on the side of state action.
Some 60 percent of Utahns polled in a recent Deseret Morning News/KSL-TV poll think there should be a local role in the enforcement of immigration law.
And, when it comes to penalizing employers who hire undocumented immigrants, some 74 percent approve. And 85 percent say citizenship checks should be required to receive public benefits.
The poll of 413 Utahns was conducted by Dan Jones and Associates Jan. 8-10. The margin of error is 5 percent.
"I think people are becoming more and more frustrated and concerned," said Sen. Bill Hickman, R-St. George, who is drafting a comprehensive measure which is being modeled after a new Oklahoma law.
"They're very, very concerned that our federal Congress is not doing anything," he said. "They're frustrated by the fact that we're still seeing a large number of people pouring across the border."
Hickman's bill has yet to be released. He's said it would, among other things, create a Class A misdemeanor for harboring or transporting illegal immigrants. It would also create barriers against undocumented immigrants obtaining jobs or public benefits.
There are also a slate of bills being introduced independently. There will be measures cracking down on identity theft, along with bills requiring at least some employers use a federal verification system or that require legal status to obtain professional licenses.
There will also be bills to repeal or tighten the driving privilege card, which allows undocumented immigrants to drive. And an effort to repeal in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants who meet residency requirements similar to those U.S. citizens must meet.
The poll found that 63 percent of Utahns oppose letting undocumented students pay the in-state rate. Only 33 percent said it should remain as Utah law.
This is the first time that Deseret Morning News polling has shown a majority support for the repeal of the 2002 law, which will be carried again by Rep. Glenn Donnelson, R-North Ogden.
"It's perhaps a reflections of the national frustration we see on the whole issue of immigration," said Karen Crompton, co-chairwoman of the Utahns for the American Dream Coalition. "I do think that the public may again change their mind and support students having a shot at the American dream which means getting an education ... We have (undocumented) students who for all intents and purposes have grown up here and consider themselves to be Americans."
Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who supports keeping the tuition law in place, will evaluate the final version of any bill that makes it to his desk, said Lisa Roskelley, a spokeswoman for the governor.
"The various criteria he's going to use would be the rule of law and safety of our citizens, economic development and improving the human condition," Roskelley said. "This is a difficult issue because of the total abdication of the federal government. That really puts us in this position, which leads to a patchwork and piecemeal approach to this national issue."
Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, wants lawmakers to take a step back and wait for direction from the new presidential administration before cracking down on undocumented immigrants and those who employ them. To that end, he's sponsoring a bill to create a Legislative Task Force to study the issue.
"We're going to have a new president," says Jenkins. "I believe we should control our border. It's kind of crazy to put in all these efforts and time when what we do could get negated."
The bills come on the backdrop of a federal immigration debate, which fizzled last summer, when a comprehensive measure failed to gain enough support in the U.S. Senate. Also last year, more than 1,500 bills dealing with immigration were introduced in states across the nation, and at least 244 are now laws in 46 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The national organization has named immigration as second only to budget issues as a top issue states will have to deal with this year.
"It's just the trend from the past couple years," says Ann Morse, NCSL's program director for the Immigration Policy Project. "The fact that there's been no movement at the federal level means state legislatures feel a lot of pressure to respond to the public's concerns."
Immigrant rights activists see it as an onslaught. Frank Cordova, director of the Utah Coalition of La Raza, says a lack of federal action is resulting in a confusing patchwork of legislation from state to state.
"What we wish would happen is states would support us in our effort to get Congress to pass some kind of immigration reform," he said. "These poor folks are getting clobbered as different states, different counties enforce different laws."
But Senate Majority Leader Curt Bramble, R-Provo, says lawmakers, and their constituents are becoming increasingly frustrated over a lack of federal action on immigration. He pointed to employment as one key area where state action could happen this year."There's a growing frustration with employers who are fueling the labor demand," Bramble said. "If we respect the rule of law, the rule of law applies not only to the illegal alien, but it applies also to the employer who offers a job."
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