After nearly three hours of debate, an omnibus bill aimed at creating barriers against undocumented immigrants obtaining jobs or public benefits gained preliminary Senate approval on Thursday in a 21-8 vote.
The debate was spread out through the morning and afternoon sessions in the Senate and included multiple amendments made at the request of business and religious groups which seemed to strengthen support for the bill in the Senate and with business organizations, including the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce.
After the vote, Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, said the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce's decision to support the measure Thursday "helps a lot." And, he said, Sen. Bob Bennett's recent statement that it may be five years before Congress acts on immigration reform "added some exclamation points."
However, several questions surfaced in the debate and some of those who voted yes to move SB81 to a final vote said they weren't sure they'd support it when it comes up for final Senate approval.
Still, Hickman says he's confident he'll have the support of the Senate when the bill is up for that vote today, along with three other immigration provisions, including one that would create a task force to study the issue.
It was question after question Thursday, and the measure's sponsor, Sen. Bill Hickman, R-St. George, often consulted with counsel before answering.
When asked about the specific impact of SB81 on the costs associated with education, health care and crime, Hickman replied, "This bill is primarily designed to minimize the employment opportunities for individuals who are coming to our state illegally, and by so doing, hopefully we will see a reduction in those costs and the impact on our state society."
When asked if Al Qaida would qualify as a religious organization, Hickman replied, "In an attempt to continue this conversation in a sane manner, I'm going to reply, I don't know."
Valentine said he is a little concerned about the employment verification requirements raised during the debate but said it helps that those provisions won't take effect until July 1, 2009. He also echoed concerns raised on the floor about whether a provision against sheltering or harboring undocumented immigrants knowing, or in reckless disregard of their status, would subject landlords to a class A misdemeanor.
That question about landlords was a key provision that arose during Thursday's debate. Another was whether community health clinics would be forced to check patients' legal status. And it was also called into question whether drivers would have to prove their citizenship to renew their drivers' licenses.
Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, unsuccessfully attempted to amend the bill to delay its effective date by a year. Currently, only limited business provisions would be delayed until July 1, 2009, and Jenkins said he wants to give time for a task force he's sponsoring in SB97, which will also be debated today, a chance to study the issue.
"I support this bill and have all along," Jenkins said. However, he expressed concern about the bill's provision that companies that contract with the state would have to use the federal E-Verify program to check new hire's work eligibility starting July 1, 2009. Jenkins, a plumbing wholesaler, questioned whether "contractor, regardless of its tier" would mean that he would have to use the verification program to provide supplies to the companies that contract with the state.
Hickman replied that only direct contractors would be impacted, but Jenkins, said, "I'm jumpy about it."
After the discussion, Jenkins said he'd be reviewing the bill Thursday night to decide on whether his final vote was up or down. He said that some of the answers "were not correct" and still had questions about the scope of the employment verification questions.
Sen. Greg Bell, R-Fruit Heights, who voted in favor of moving the bill forward, also expressed concerns, saying "this, of all bills, does not speak for itself."
"I think the employers ought to be really, really concerned about this provision," he said about a clause that makes it unlawful to discharge a legal employee while retaining an undocumented employee in a similar position. "The landlords ought to be very concerned ... What is harboring? We don't know what harbor means. We don't know what shelter means ... You own a duplex and you are in violation of the law."
Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake, questioned the religious exemption, saying it allowed undocumented immigrants to prosteltize but not work to feed their families. "If it's about the rule of law, how can you have a religious exemption? ... I simply do not believe this is within the public policy interest of the state."
And Bell said he supports the bill's concept but he may try to amend the bill today. He said his remarks on the Senate floor were meant to send notice to those who would be impacted, from sheriffs who would be required to attempt to verify prisoners' immigration status to landlords who could find themselves breaking the law. And he said he's concerned about community health centers.
"Counsel says that's not a concern, but I'm researching that," he said.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has not taken a position on the bill, declined to comment on whether the bill's provision exempting religious organizations from liability for sheltering or harboring undocumented immigrants provided sufficient protection for churches, said church spokesman Scott Trotter.
Lane Beattie, president of the Salt Lake Chamber, said his organization's support of SB81 is independent of a broad coalition of business organizations that oppose the comprehensive approach and favor the task force instead. Beattie said the Chamber still supports the task force as a supplement to the bill.
"We had several amendments that were very important to the business community represented by the Chamber of Commerce," Beattie said. "All of our amendments were approved ... we are supporting Sen. Hickman's bill."
Beattie did say he hoped concerns about landlord-tenant relations brought up during the morning session would be addressed.
Hickman said he'd resist any such amendment, saying "It's the responsibility of the landlords, like any other good citizen of the state, to determine the legality of their tenants."
The Chamber's support for SB81 baffled Antonella Romero-Packard, co-chair of the Utah Hispanic/Latino Legislative Task Force.
"Where did the reason go?" she said. "There were some unanswered questions and concerns, I have as a citizen and resident of this state ... They were not listening to any of the valid concerns."
And she questioned the implications for "those of us with brown skin," saying "what happens if I go to get health care and I don't have my documents."
Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. also expressed concerns Thursday during his monthly press conference on KUED Channel 7, saying he believes the state should wait for Congress to act on immigration rather than "start creating a patchwork of politics addressing an issue that is generally a federal issue and is crying out for a federal fix." To do so, he supports the task force this year.
"There are economic considerations, there are security considerations, there are human condition considerations," he said.
While stopping short of threatening to veto any specific bill, the governor did say he supports keeping in place driving privilege cards, which allow undocumented immigrants to drive legally, with insurance. He also supports keeping in place a law that allows undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition if they attend a Utah high school for three years and graduate.
Neither of those two proposals are in Hickman's bill. They are, however, included in measures that have passed the House, which Valentine said will be considered together in Senate committee.Valentine responded to the potential veto, saying "We're still going to be talking to the governor about the immigration bills ... we'll just make our best shot."