SALT LAKE CITY — State lawmakers pushed through a series of bills touted as a Utah solution to illegal immigration, though it nearly crumbled like a House of cards late Friday night.
The package includes provisions for enforcement, a guest worker program, a migrant worker partnership with Mexico and employee verification and employer sanctions.
"This is an attempt to enact at the state level the very policies we have expected the federal government to enact for years," said Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, one of the primary movers behind the effort.
Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake, whose bill was swallowed in the comprehensive approach, said Utah will be perceived nationally as a "state not scared of facing very complicated issues."
The Senate, primarily through Bramble, thought it had a deal with the House after passing several bills, including Rep. Stephen Sandstrom's enforcement-only and migrant worker partnership bills, and adjourning Friday evening. The bill passed easily and with no heated debate.
"We're set with immigration," Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, said afterward.
But House members during heated and impassioned debate nearly shot down the lynchpin piece, Rep. Bill Wright's HB116 that contains a guest worker program. The Senate rolled enforcement and employee verification into that bill to create a comprehensive measure before sending it back to the House.
The House eventually passed the bill 41-32.
"I will call this what it is. This is pure and simple amnesty," said Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo, one of the most ardent critics of allowing illegal immigrants to work in the state.
"That has done more harm to the state of Utah than anything we've ever done," he told supporters afterward.
Legislative attorneys attached a note to Wright's bill saying the guest worker program would be unconstitutional absent the federal government granting Utah authority to implement it. The bill calls for the program to start July 1, 2013, regardless.
Several House members said they couldn't support the the bill for that reason, even though they overwhelmingly passed it with the guest worker provision before the Senate amended it.
"It unconstitutional. Clearly," said Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake. "We shouldn't be wasting our time with it. We shouldn't be wasting our money with it."
The package came together in furious fashion late into the evening with the House and Senate hitting several some sticking points along the way. At one point in the hall outside House chamber, Bramble and Herrod threatened to work toward killing each other's bills.
The House initially took issue with an in-state tuition component for undocumented college students, but after meeting with House members, the Senate agreed to remove it. There is another bill working its way through the Legislature that will retain the benefit but make it tougher to get.
House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said she expected the bill to pass but wanted everyone to have the opportunity to offer their opinions before the vote.
“This is an important issue and people have very strong feelings on both sides,” she said nearly 14 hours after the floor session started. “Allowing the debate and allowing everyong who wanted to say something is vital to the process.”
• Establish in the Department of Public Safety a program for illegal immigrants to obtain a work permit in Utah.
• Impose fines of up to $2,500 on those who apply for the permit.
• Require businesses with 15 or more employees to verify their legal status or face penalties including fines and business license suspensions.
• Require police to check the immigration status of people detained or arrested for felonies and class A misdemeanors; give police discretion to check the status for those suspected of class B and class C misdemeanors.
The bill allows illegal immigrants in the state prior to May 11, 2011 to be eligible for the guest worker permit, which Rep. Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara, not just opens he door to illegal immigrants but opens the barn door.
"We're giving two months of all-y, all-y in come free," Herrod said.
Wright said his colleagues were too hung up on the May 11 deadline.
"We're talking about 60 days. So guess what? We'll have nothing in place," he said. "Unless we take one tiny step forward we're going to get the status quo."
Sandstrom, R-Orem, said afterward he would have preferred the status quo.
Bramble apparently put off some House members in the drafting of his own illegal immigration legislation. His comprehensive proposal, SB288, includes key provisions lifted from several bills, including Rep. Stephen Sandstrom's enforcement-only measure.
"I don't know why anyone would be offended by his effort," Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, said of Bramble. But "it's sometimes better to take the emotion out of it or the personalities out of it."
Reid, the Senate sponsor of HB116, praised Bramble's efforts as head of the so-called Coalition of the Willing, which has been meeting since early in the legislative session to draft a "Utah solution." The group comprised of various stakeholders in the debate, including Reid, has worked behind the scenes to draft a bill that would comport with the Utah Compact and Gov. Gary Herbert's six principles on illegal immigration reform.
That effort put Bramble and Sandstrom at odds, although they are now working together on the migrant worker program. HB466, which would establish a partnership with the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon to supply workers to Utah, sailed through the House and Senate on Friday.
The House approved a new version of Sandstrom's enforcement-only bill Friday morning without debate. A Senate committee iced his HB70 this week, saying it polarized the community. The Senate then approved the new bill Friday.
That bill, HB497, is almost identical to the previous measure but altered enough for the Senate to find palatable. Waddoups said it is his understanding the measure meets the Senate's desire. And per a previous agreement with the Senate, Sandstrom's enforcement bill will trump that provision in Wright's bill.
Sandstrom said he believes the bill has gone a long way to meet the needs of police agencies that initially had heartburn over its provisions
"We do need an enforcement bill," Sandstrom said.
Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche, Amanda Verzello
E-mail: [email protected]