A sweeping immigration measure is headed to a committee hearing today, just a few days after it was made public, and immigrant rights advocates say the timing is disconcerting.
SB81 was released Thursday, and agencies and organizations from the Salt Lake Chamber to the American Civil Liberties Union were reviewing the 21-page bill that would make it tougher for undocumented immigrants to find jobs or receive public benefits. The bill would also get Utah's law enforcement agencies involved in enforcing immigration law.
Antonella Romero Packard, co-chair of the Utah Hispanic/Latino Legislative Task Force, expressed concern at the rush to a hearing on SB81, especially given the hearing's packed agenda. The bill was scheduled as item No. 3 of 10 in today's Senate Government Operations Committee.
"It should tell you some minds are already made up," Packard said.
Packard says the task force is supporting another bill, sponsored by Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, which would create a legislative task force to research the issue and look into possible state remedies.
"We want to focus on making sure this is studied," Packard said. "We are going to be watching it closely."
Sen. Bill Hickman, R-St. George, sponsor of SB81, had originally told the Deseret Morning News he wasn't going to rush to hearing but that he wanted it to be made available for public review while he waited for a full package of independent measures moving through the House.
On Friday, Hickman said, "It came up and I decided it is going to be a long process.
"Assuming it gets out of the Senate, then it has to go to the House," Hickman said. "The beauty of it is, there will be another public hearing in the House."
That, he said, should give the public enough time to absorb the measure. And, he said, senators are aware of the bill, which has been discussed in leadership and caucus meetings.
Hickman's measure is modeled after an Oklahoma law, which is considered one of the nation's toughest crackdowns on illegal immigration. That law has already been the target of legal challenges, though Emily Lang, spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Attorney General's Office said all the suits have been dismissed for procedural reasons, with one exception.
A new federal lawsuit was filed Friday by the State Chamber of Oklahoma and other business organizations, saying the Oklahoma law poses unreasonable burden on employers, placing them at a disadvantage with employers in other states.
"To accomplish our mission we must protect Oklahoma's business community from state laws and regulations which make them less competitive than those in other states and around the world," Richard P. Rush, chair of the chamber, said in a statement.
Hickman said that during the drafting phase the bill was vetted and the Legislature's legal counsel has advised him it is sound.
"Anybody can file a lawsuit," he said. "As to the viability, only time will tell ... If we believe this is the right thing to do, we should proceed."
Legal concerns led Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake, to abandon a bill he was exploring to make it an unfair trade practice to hire undocumented immigrants, because it would be preempted by federal statute.
Civil rights attorney Brian Barnard questioned the need for at least some of the bill's provisions, such as preventing undocumented immigrants from getting liquor licenses. He added the implementation could be problematic.
"On it's face, the proposed legislation doesn't have civil rights violations," he said. "Those civil rights violations are going to come more when it's applied and is applied in a discriminatory way."
After a precursory review, immigration attorney Roger Tsai questioned whether a provision that gives legal workers a right to sue if they're displaced by a company that employs illegal immigrants could lead to discrimination.
"A lot of employers may look at this and start to terminate noncitizens," he said. And Tsai wondered whether a provision against transporting undocumented immigrants could go so far as to have bus drivers asking for proof of legal status.
Hickman doubted his bill would be interpreted so broadly.
"This is not for casual transportation," he said. "This is transporting people for the purpose of employment ... it isn't to go to the grocery store or church."
Hickman said even if there are short-term negative economic impacts from his bill, in the long term it should be a positive. He pointed to a Washington County framing company that can't compete with businesses that hire illegal workers at low wages."In the long run, it would be a very positive economic impact," he said. "People will be able to start competing on a level playing field."