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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Sen. Stephen Sandstrom speaks at a hearing about his proposed immigration house bill on Capitol Hill Friday, Feb. 11, 2011, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

SALT LAKE CITY — A proposed enforcement-only illegal immigration law that some say could define Utah's image for years to come cleared its first hurdle Friday.

After more than three hours of dueling statistics, emotional anecdotes and points of law, the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee voted 9-3 to advance HB70 to the House. Seven of the 12 members are co-sponsors of the bill. Democrats cast the dissenting votes.

"I'm relieved in the sense that the process has started," the bill's author said Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem, said, noting he has spent 10 months crafting the legislation.

Sandstrom, who has wooed moderate Republicans and even a couple of Democrats with recent tweaks to the bill, said he believes he has the votes to get it through the House. The Senate, which favors a comprehensive approach, will pose a challenge.

"This bill is necessary. We need a deterrent. Some people say this bill goes too far. Some say it doesn't go far enough. This is a starting point," he told the committee.

Rep. David Litvack, D-Salt Lake, said the law wouldn't push illegal immigrants out of Utah because it's nothing more than a catch-and-release program.

"We're putting forth this false perception that this is going to solve something," he said. "It is not."

Utahns agree with Sandstrom that the state needs to get tough on undocumented immigrants, and they apparently don't care about the price tag. Local government balked at initial estimates putting the annual cost at as much as $11 million annually.

But in a Deseret News/KSL poll conducted this week before Sandstrom made changes to the bill that he said would reduce the costs, 54 percent of residents say the law would be worth additional resources to enforce. Another 39 percent say it wouldn't be worth it, while 7 percent didn't know.

The survey of 496 Utahns was conducted by Dan Jones & Associates Feb. 8-10. It has an error margin of plus or minus 4 percent.

HB70 requires police officers to verify the legal status of people detained for class A misdemeanor and felony offenses if the officer has "reasonable suspicion" they are in the country illegally. Those people would be handed to U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

Officers would not have to check the status of those suspected of class B and class C misdemeanors, but could if they chose to.

It bases "reasonable suspicion" on the absence of a Utah driver's license or other valid forms of government-issue identification, including a concealed weapons permit.

Proponents and opponents of HB70 had their first opportunity Friday to sound off on the controversial measure. More than 150 people crammed into a hearing room and an overflow room under the watchful eye of several Utah Highway Patrol troopers.

Committee Chairman Rep. Curt Oda, R-Clearfield, cautioned the audience against cheering and jeering.

"If it starts getting ugly, I can have you arrested," he said at one point. It never did.

Sandstrom brought five people, including leaders of the Utah Coalition on Illegal Immigration and Utah Eagle Forum, to testify in favor of the bill. They related anecdotes about identity theft and illegal immigrants taking Americans' jobs.

One of them, dentist Jennifer Brown, quoted Alexander Hamilton and compared illegal immigrants to microscopic bacteria on teeth.

That prompted Rep. Jen Seeling, D-Salt Lake, to ask, "Are you a dentist or a political scientist?"

Several opponents of HB70 characterized it as an Arizona-style law that the federal government is challenging in court. Utah, they said, would see economic boycotts and it's image tarnished.

Sutherland Institute executive director Paul Mero said half the bill is identical to the Arizona law. He called the Utah bill a "civil rights nightmare."

"It uses the illusion of law enforcement to simply hunt down a group of people we imagine are ruining our society," he said. "This bill would create a false positive in the minds of citizens."

Mero said Utah would look neither smart nor courageous in passing the law.

Sandstrom said only people who want to vilify the proposal refer to it as an Arizona-style bill. His measure, he said, is in "sound legal territory." And, he said, any economic fallout in Arizona was short-lived.

Rep. David Butterfield, R-Logan, said he struggled with the bill for a long time before figuring out what it's meant to accomplish.

"We are targeting illegal immigrants who are committing the worst crimes among us," he said. "I really can't understand what is embarrassing and unreasonable about trying to verify the legal status of the ones committing the worst crimes."

Jim Wall, of the Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau, said HB70 is not in keeping with the Utah Compact, a document signed by state business, government and religious leaders that encourages federal solutions and preserving families among other things.

Arturo Morales-LLan, of Legal Immigrants for Immigration Law Enforcement, asked lawmakers to "validate the faith of your constituents" who want something done about illegal immigration.

"We need to take care of our own people and help them find jobs," he said. "That's your duty."

E-mail: romboy@desnews.com