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Brian Nicholson, El Observador de Utah
Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake, and Rep. Jeremy Petersen, R-Odgen, present their immigration reform bill during a press conference at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2011.

SALT LAKE CITY — A freshman Republican who is a member of the conservative Patrick Henry Caucus has agreed to champion a Democratic senator's illegal immigration bill in the Utah House.

Rep. Jeremy Peterson, R-Ogden, will co-sponsor Sen. Luz Robles' proposal for accountability and state-issued work permits for undocumented immigrants. Robles, D-Salt Lake, and Peterson held a news conference Wednesday to announce the alliance.

"The very fact that I won in the district that I did has earned me some clout with my colleagues," Peterson said afterward. He ousted a Democrat last fall who had served a dozen years in the House.

In the end, however, it may not matter how much political capital Peterson has to spend.

Veteran Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, has opened a bill file titled "immigration reform" and is already attempting to piece together a single plan. He took the same tack six years ago for getting the driving privilege card approved for illegal immigrants.

Although lawmakers haven't said much about illegal immigration in the first eight days of the 45-day legislative session, the debate appears ready to ignite.

There are currently eight immigration bills drafted or in the works, including Orem GOP Rep. Stephen Sandstrom's enforcement-only proposal (HB70), two seeking guest worker programs and one penalizing businesses for knowingly hiring illegal immigrants (HB253). The deadline to file new bills is noon Thursday.

"I think Sen. Robles' bill has some traction. I think Rep. Sandstrom's bill has some traction. There are some other bills that have traction," said Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-West Jordan.

"I'm not sure Robles' or Sandstrom's bills will pass," he said, "but I know we're going to pass something with immigration this session."

While Senate Republicans favor a comprehensive approach, House Republicans want to let the bills stand on their own merits for a vote. The GOP controls both chambers.

Robles said her bill, SB60, is comprehensive enough, but isn't opposed to talking.

"We think it's a good start," she said. "We're willing to sit at the table."

Whatever road lawmakers take, Peterson said, "it will be an adventure getting there."

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But one thing is certain: "The voters wants something done. That was loud and clear (while) campaigning," said Peterson, whose central Ogden district is 50 percent Hispanic. "I felt this piece of legislation best addresses the issues voters want to have addressed and does so in a fair and vigorous way."

Peterson isn't the only conservative voice for Robles' bill. The Sutherland Institute, a right-leaning political think tank, has backed it from the beginning.

If there is going to be a cobbling of bills, Robles' plan would be the best platform to work from, said Paul Mero, Sutherland executive director.

"Besides Sandstrom's bill, the second worst thing we could do is a pass a guest worker bill," he said.

E-mail: romboy@desnews.com