SALT LAKE CITY – A bill that would create a guest worker program for illegal immigrants in Utah passed the House Wednesday, 43-28.
HB116, sponsored by Rep. Bill Wright, R-Holden, seeks a waiver from the federal government within the next two years to allow illegal immigrants to participate in the program.
"If we don't get something like this, we're going to paralyze our communities. We're going to paralyze our businesses in this state," Wright said.
He made a plea for forgiving those who have entered the country illegally to work, saying everyone, including himself, makes mistakes.
"I suggest there are a lot of people that will want to comply and participate with this, if we quit entrapping them and give them a way to go forward and be good 'citizens,'" Wright said.
His proposal was praised by a number of representatives, including Rep. Jack Draxler, R-North Logan, who said the illegal immigration enforcement bill already passed this session isn't enough.
"No amount of hand-wringing, no amount of chest thumping, no amount of threats are going to make this problem go away," Draxler said, calling Wright's bill "a pragmatic approach."
The program would be voluntary and requirements for participation include fingerprinting and background checks. Wright described it as a starting point, suggesting there may be changes.
On the House floor, Rep. Lavar Christensen, R-Draper, amended the bill to give priority to foreigners who have already applied for legal citizenship.
"I give you the spirit of Ellis Island in Utah," Christensen said.
His amendment, approved on a voice vote, came after several representatives complained that the bill discriminated against those attempting to get into the country legally.
Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo, said he's tired of hearing that illegal immigrants are good people. "They contribute somewhat," he said, but the real question is should they be treated better.
Herrod said entering the country illegally shouldn't be treated as if it's "not that big a deal. It is a big deal if you're waiting to come to this country … we punish those that actually go through the process."
Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem, warned the bill gives "false hope" to illegal immigrants, who will flock to Utah to participate in the program.
"We cannot have people in Utah who are above the law," he said, suggesting it would take an act of Congress for the guest worker program to be approved by the federal government.
But House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden, said if the state doesn't "ask for the waiver, if we don't push Washington into participating with us, I can guarantee they never will."
The bill now goes to the Senate.