Efforts to repeal a law allowing qualified undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition appear to be hanging by a thread.

Sen. Bill Hickman, R-St. George, says he plans to amend the comprehensive immigration bill he's sponsoring to remove the repeal when it's heard by a Senate panel.

Currently, students can pay the in-state rate at public colleges and universities, regardless of their legal status, if they attend a Utah high school for three years and graduate.

"It's probably the area I've had the most discussions about on both sides," said Hickman, who is sponsoring SB81, which is aimed at creating barriers against undocumented immigrants obtaining jobs or public benefits.

Meanwhile, Rep. Glenn Donnelson, R-North Ogden, delayed a vote on HB241 earlier this week. That bill would repeal the tuition benefit.

The delay came when a representative who supported the measure was absent. That supporter, Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo, was back at the Capitol Wednesday afternoon, but Donnelson didn't say when he'd try to bring the bill to a vote, saying only it won't be today.

Those opposed to HB241 are "cautiously optimistic" about the delay, says Theresa Martinez, co-chairwoman of the Utahns for the American Dream Coalition.

"We don't know what that really means," she said. "We treat it as something that needs to be taken seriously. Lives are at stake here."

The history of the proposed tuition repeal is a contentious one. Last year, a similar measure also sponsored by Donnelson died in a tied vote when a co-sponsor was absent.

Ronald Mortensen, co-founder of the Utah Coalition on Illegal Immigration, acknowledged that getting the tuition bill through the process would be a challenge. Even if it does receive House approval, he said, "that would be a very uphill battle in the Senate."

And, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. has said he supports keeping the tuition law in place.

However, even as the repeal efforts appear to have hit a speed bump, some other measures have already moved through the House. That includes HB98, which Donnelson is sponsoring to require public employers use the federal E-Verify program to determine the work eligibility of new hires, and HB237, which would require some state troopers be trained for immigration enforcement.

Senate Majority Leader Curt Bramble, R-Provo, said of the House measures, "We'll deal with them when we see them."

Hickman, who chairs the Rules Committee, says he's waiting to see what happens with his bill before sending the House bills to committee because some are already included in his proposal and others would need to be coordinated with it.

SB81 was scheduled for a panel hearing on Monday, but was pulled because Hickman's return to the Capitol was delayed by winter weather. Hickman says he's ready to have it heard when scheduling allows.

When the issue of illegal immigration comes up, some lawmakers cite constituent pressure before they vote. It is an election year, and Mortensen suspects that may be enough to get the Senate's support on at least some proposals.

"That one, I think is a really easy one for them to accept," Mortensen said of HB98. And he sees a chance for another bill, HB257, up for a panel hearing today, that would require companies to use E-Verify if they contract with the state.

E-mail: dbulkeley@desnews.com