SALT LAKE CITY — A proposed guest worker program for illegal immigrants has some of Utah's most conservative folks lining up behind it, while some of the more liberal types staked a position against it.
At a House committee meeting Tuesday on Rep. Bill Wright's HB116, ranchers and farmers, including former state legislator Dave Ure, testified the bill would provide them much needed labor.
"In today's society, you cannot find anyone to work on farms," said Ure, a Kamas dairy owner. "There's not two kids at South Summit High School who know which end of a pitchfork to lean on."
ACLU policy analyst Esperanza Granados told the House Workforce Services and Community and Economic Development Committee that the bill is unconstitutional. Furthermore, she said a guest worker program doesn't guarantee undocumented workers won't be deported.
"This creates a false sense of hope for those individuals who would apply for this permit," she said.
Though committee members agreed that there are constitutional issues with the bill, they moved it forward by 6-1 vote to continue debate on the House floor.
Rep. Dean Sanpei, R-Provo, said HB116 creates a situation where undocumented workers would be OK in Utah, but illegal in the country. "To me, that sets up a constitutional conflict."
Wright, R-Holden, said the proposal is driven by Americans unwillingness to do menial jobs.
"Walk through the basement (of the Capitol) at 4:30 or 5 in the morning and see who's setting up the tables. It's not your kids. It's not my kids," he said.
Ron Mortensen, founder of the Utah Coalition on Illegal Immigration, took issue with Wright's suggestion that American workers are unproductive and won't do certain jobs. Americans, he said, work hard as long as their employers value them and pay decent wages.
HB116 is among several illegal immigration bills wending their way through the Legislature. Unlike two others that have some traction, this one does not focus on enforcement. It provides a means for undocumented immigrants to legally work in the state.
Wright said Utah needs to step up because the federal government has failed. "Anything we do with this bill is better than what we do now," he said.
The bill would create two types of permits — a guest worker permit and an immediate family permit. The latter would allow the undocumented worker's spouse and unmarried children under age 21 to be in the country lawfully. Applicants would have to undergo a criminal background check and be fingerprinted. Those found with criminal records would be referred to law enforcement and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The Utah Department of Workforce Services would administer the program. DWS would set an application fee and if the applicant doesn’t have basic health insurance it would include a $750 fine. Permits would be good for two years.
Legislative fiscal analysts estimate the program would cost DWS $2.8 million to start but generate $11.5 million annually in income tax for the state education fund.
Wright said the bill would not offer amnesty, which he defines as a pathway to citizenship. "This provides security as long as you're working," he said.
Rep. David Litvack, D-Salt Lake, said he's been frustrated at his colleagues' tendency to use legislation to throw rocks at the federal government. "This is one where I'm right there with some of my colleagues," he said.
Any guest worker system would require a federal waiver to implement, which some say won't happen.
"Federal immigration law does not provide for a waiver," said attorney Mark Alvarez.
HB116 has a provision making it effective in 2013 regardless of federal approval.
Litvack said that gives him "heartburn," but supports the bill because, unlike other illegal immigration measures, it recognizes human beings.
"There is a very humane side to this legislation," he said.