Lawmakers were dumbfounded Thursday to learn from U.S. Attorney Brett Tolman that mere illegal presence isn't seen as a prosecutable crime in Utah.
"Once they come into an interior state, they are legal?" asked an incredulous Sen. Bill Hickman, R-St. George.
Tolman replied, "The status here is illegal." But, he said, illegal presence would have to be prosecuted in the state where an individual crossed the border illegally.
"What is prosecuted very vigorously in this state is re-entry," Tolman said, referring to illegal immigrants who have been previously deported.
His office has prosecuted more than 1,000 such cases. And, he said, illegal immigration is a component of 25 percent of cases his office investigates, ranging from gang activity to identity theft.
The discussion on criminal prosecutions was part of a broad-reaching discussion at the first meeting of the Legislature's Immigration Interim Committee held Thursday in the state Capitol. The committee is commissioned with evaluating SB81, a comprehensive illegal immigration law Hickman sponsored, and making recommendations on areas of possible state action. SB81 is set to take effect in July 2009, creating barriers against undocumented immigrants obtaining jobs or public benefits.
Enforcement ideas brought up ranged from bringing an immigration detention center to Utah to bolstering the Attorney General Office's identity theft unit.
Lawmakers also got an update on what other states are doing from Ann Morse of the National Conference of State Legislatures. Committee members weren't shy about venting their frustrations over federal inaction on several facets of immigration.
"I am just amazed at the federal government's inability to do anything," said Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, the committee's co-chairman.
Morse said in the absence of federal action, Arizona and Colorado are attempting to create their own "guest worker" programs because existing federal visa programs are seen as cumbersome by employers and employees.
Three other states are involved in litigation over immigration action, Morse said. They are Arizona and Oklahoma, which have passed get-tough measures, and Illinois, which passed a law preventing employers from using a federal employment verification program.
"There is anecdotal evidence showing people leaving the state, children not in school," Morse said of Oklahoma. But, she said, it's difficult to say how much of that is due to Oklahoma's law and how much is due to the economic climate. And it's also unclear as yet what the impacts of such laws are.
Morse pointed out that two economists have come to opposite conclusions about Arizona's immigration law. One contends it's helping the state, the other that it's hurting.
Jenkins said SB81 likely won't be the topic for the first few meetings as the committee continues to explore the issue of where states can take action.
"That's what we're trying to do here," he said. "Figure out what we can and can't do."
During the meeting, Tolman and Attorney General Mark Shurtleff stressed that state, local and federal law enforcement agencies often co-operate on investigations. And he said there's an effort by Utah's senators to bring an immigration detention center and more ICE support to the state. There currently are 25-30 officers here, he said.
Shurtleff said his office is also involved in an identity theft task force, and he has submitted a fiscal note for $601,000 to add additional staffing to bolster that office.
Tolman said Utah is already meeting many of the requirements laid out in a so-called 287g agreement, in which state and local law officers take on a federal immigration role. A requirement to enter such an agreement is part of SB81.
"You have a phenomenal effort by your law enforcement, with or without 287g," Tolman said. "287g is designed to set up what you already have."
There are currently 47 such agreements nationwide and more than 90 pending requests, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.
Shurtleff, who has expressed concerns about such agreements in the past, said he has looked into it further and is prepared to enter into negotiations with federal officials.
He said it's important not to detract from law enforcement's other duties. And, he said, "most victims of crime by undocumented aliens are other undocumented aliens. We need them to work with local law enforcement."
That, he said, may become more difficult if a sheriff also has the power to make an immigration arrest.
Currently, local law enforcement agencies often must process illegal immigrants they arrest just like any other suspect, because ICE doesn't always have the resources to place an immigration hold, Shurtleff said. And, he said, those holds only last 48 hours.
Rep. Glenn Donnelson, R-North Ogden, who has sponsored bills related to such an agreement, said key to success is additional support from ICE.
"The federal government is going to have to step up to help the ICE agents to help support this," he said. "Right now it looks doubtful."
Jenkins questioned why the state can't simply deport undocumented immigrants itself.
Shurtleff replied that there's no state authority to do so.
"While they're here they are protected by due process and other rights," he said. "That's the way it is. I do have to respect those rights."
Comments at the committee meetings are limited to those who are on the agenda. Those who would like to testify or who have information they'd like to share with the committee should submit it to Art Hunsaker at email@example.com.The next meeting will be on June 19 in Cache County. Details will be posted online at www.le.state.ut.us when they are available.