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Brian Nicholson, El Observador de Utah
Raul Lopez-Vargas of the Federation of Mexican Clubs talks with media members during a press conference outside the Mexican Consulate Monday, February 14, 2011.

SALT LAKE CITY — Illegal immigration continues to be a hot topic in Utah on several fronts.

Various bills are slowly but surely winding their way through the 2011 Legislature and, according to one activist, are putting the Latino community on edge. Also, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, trotted out his federal proposal again Monday.

Meantime, a Latino activist delivered a letter to Salt Lake City's Mexican Consulate urging Mexico's president to suspend the visas of Mormon missionaries until the LDS Church takes a stronger position on immigration.

From the outset of the 2011 Legislature, lawmakers have said they will address the illegal immigration issue one way or another, although on Monday Senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins did allow for the possibility of nothing happening.

"I'm not confident at all," the Plain City Republican said.

But his colleague Sen. Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, had a different take.

"I think there's no question we're going to have something," he said. "I think it's remote that we won't."

While the Senate favors taking the best of several bills in what Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, calls a "Utah solution," it is carefully watching individual pieces of legislation work through the process.

That has Mike Picardi, of United for Social Justice, so angry he couldn't contain himself in a committee meeting Monday.

"These bills are all targeted to our Latino brothers and sisters. It's time we called a spade a spade," he said. "They're trying to make this a totally white society with totally white workers."

His outburst came as the House Business and Labor Committee approved a bill that would punish businesses for knowingly employing undocumented immigrants.

In its original form HB253, sponsored by Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo, would suspend the business licenses of companies with five employees or more that hire illegal immigrants. But the committee amended it to companies with 15 or more workers.

Herrod said he expects that point to be debated on the House floor.

Herrod also substituted the word "may" for "shall" throughout the bill giving the Utah Attorney General's Office and county attorneys latitude to enforce the law. In so doing, he wiped out a nearly $1 million annual enforcement cost.

"It gives them the discretion if they believe that is a crime worth punishing or it fits within their budget to do it," he said.

Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem, did the same thing with his enforcement-only illegal immigration bill last week after local government balked at anticipated costs. Herrod is running his bill as companion legislation to that measure.

Marina Lowe, ACLU legislative and policy counsel, asked the committee to hold off on HB253 until the U.S. Supreme Court rules on a case involving a similar law in Arizona. She called it "reckless" to move ahead before that decision comes in the next few months.

The Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce also opposes the bill, saying it would put an undue financial burden on small businesses and that it doesn't comport with the Utah Compact.

On another front, Raul Lopez-Vargas handed a letter to the Mexican consulate asking Mexico to suspend visas to LDS missionaries, who he says are treated with respect in that country.

"We would like to be treated in the same way here in Utah," Lopez-Vargas said.

A former vice-president with Centro Civico, he says his aim is to urge The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to speak out more forcefully against enforcement-only proposals on Capitol Hill.

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"We will be happy if the leaders of the Mormon church and their representatives make a public statement signing the Utah Compact," said Lopez-Vargas.

The church endorsed the compact, but didn't sign it. A church spokesman said "we've made our position clear."

With lawmakers debating a number of immigration bills, Latino community advocate Tony Yapias said the issue is nearing a boiling point.

"We have to understand that there is a lot of people scared and afraid in our community," Yapias said.

Contributing: John Daley

e-mail: romboy@desnews.com