A bill approved by the House of Representatives on Friday would enable some of Utah's state troopers to enforce federal immigration laws.
HB237, approved in a 44-25 vote, would require the Department of Public Safety to enter into a 287(g) agreement with the Department of Homeland Security. That agreement would allow some troopers to receive federal training to do some immigration enforcement during their normal duty, said Rep. Glenn Donnelson, R-North Ogden.
"It does not cross-deputize officers," Donnelson said. "It will not pull officers from their normal duties. They have the authority to enforce federal immigration laws, the authority to question, detain and charge and individual who is illegally in the United States."
It's the second major piece of legislation dealing with illegal immigration to receive House approval. Another bill sponsored by Donnelson and approved by the House this week would require public employers to verify the work eligibility of new hires using a federal Internet-based E-Verify system.
Friday's vote came after some Democrats raised concerns about the potential for racial profiling, wrongful arrests of U.S. citizens and legal immigrants, along with potential cost to the state.
An amendment proposed by Rep. David Litvack, D-Salt Lake, would have held liable the agencies employing law officers who violated civil rights. It was voted down after Donnelson said it wasn't needed because law officers found to engage in racial profiling would be automatically eliminated from the program.
But Litvack said his amendment was meant to "strike a balance" between law enforcement and constitutional protection.
"I understand that a lot of this body feels pressure from constituents to enact immigration laws," Litvack said. "I am being responsive to my constituents who are talking to me and e-mailing me about the fear that they have with this bill."
The Department of Public Safety is neutral on the bill, but is looking into the program so if the bill passes the agency will be ready to comply, said spokesman Jeff Nigbur. Law enforcement agencies already have the option of entering into the agreements, and at least one Utah agency, the Davis County Sheriff's Department, has applied.
Nationwide, some 600 officers have been trained and certified to enforce immigration law under the program, resulting in uncovering more than 37,000 possible immigration violations in the past two years, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Nigbur said the training would be limited to only a few troopers and enforcement would be reactive. He pointed to a fatal crash last April in San Juan County, which involved a suspected immigrant smuggler, as a case in which the agreement would have been helpful.
"We have a lot on our plate as it is," Nigbur said. "This is not a proactive measure to go out and enforce immigration."
HB237 now moves to the Senate. Last year, a similar bill sponsored by Donnelson also received House approval, but it died waiting for a Senate hearing in the late hours of the last session.A comprehensive Senate bill, SB81, would require the Utah Attorney General to enter into such an agreement on behalf of all law enforcement agencies in the state. Paul Murphy, spokesman for the attorney general, has said the office is deferring comment on that bill until it has time to review it.