SALT LAKE CITY — Odds are the issue of illegal immigration won't dominate the Utah Legislature's agenda in 2012 as it did a year ago, political observers say.
Now that Utah's economy appears to be on the rebound and the flow of illegal immigration has waned, according census figures, lawmakers convening the 2012 general session Monday say they want focus on issues they had to shelve in recent years because of dwindling tax revenues.
This session is also taking place in an election year and the November recall of Arizona Senate President Russell Pearce, the architect of that state's tough enforcement law, SB1070, sent a resounding message about the public's desire for "real solutions … not just a focus on law enforcement," his successor, Sen. Jerry Lewis, has said.
Utah's own enforcement law passed by lawmakers last year is in federal court, where a judge is considering whether it is constitutional. A hearing is scheduled in mid-February, and if the court rules while lawmakers are in session, the Legislature may need to amend sections of the law, Utah Attorney Mark Shurtleff has said.
That bill was part of a package of four bills passed in the 2011 session that won't go into effect until 2013, supposing Congress grants necessary waivers to allow some of them to become law. That means state lawmakers are not under a time crunch to tinker with them.
Even with those factors seemingly putting immigration on the backburner, a number of immigration measures are bubbling to the surface on Capitol Hill, such as a proposal to repeal and replace HB116, Utah's guest worker permit bill, passed a last year.
The law created a guest worker permit and an immediate family permit, with the latter allowing an undocumented worker's spouse and unmarried children to be in the country lawfully. Applicants would have to submit to criminal background checks and be fingerprinted. People with criminal records would be referred to state and federal law enforcement. Permit holders who failed to obtain basic health insurance would be subject to $750 fines.
Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo, who would sponsor the repeal, says HB116 conflicts with Republican Party principles and is likely unconstitutional.
He wants to repeal the measure and replace it with a law that also would require undocumented immigrants who have committed civil violations by entering the country illegally to pay fines. But it would also establish the expectation that they would leave the country after a grace period to get their affairs in order. They could, under the pilot program Herrod envisions, then apply for visas without being subject to the decade-long wait for re-entry the federal government now imposes on some people who overstay visas or are in the country illegally.
Herrod says his proposal is a "good faith effort to heal the Republican party."
HB116 drew the ire of many Republicans at some county party conventions, where resolutions calling for the law's repeal were passed, despite appeals to the contrary by Gov. Gary Herbert, Lt. Gov. Greg Bell and Shurtleff.
Herrod, who has announced he will challenge GOP U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, said HB116 is simply unjust. "It's not fair to tolerate illegal immigration for those trying to come here legally," he said.
State Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, said he has not read the proposed legislation intended as alternatives to HB116.
"If there are proposals that are outright repeals, I won't support that," said Reid, who was the Senate sponsor of HB116.
Another proposal would put teeth into Utah's employment verification law, which requires businesses with 15 or more employees to use the federal E-Verify program to determine whether worker can be legally employed. Presently, there is no enforcement measure, which has led to the passage of ordinances in some Utah municipalities that require employers to verify whether their employees may legally work in the United States as a condition of obtaining a city or county business license.
There may also be another move to repeal the law that allows undocumented students who graduate from a Utah high school and have attended a Utah school three successive years to pay instate tuition rates at public colleges and universities. These students comprise less than one-half of 1 percent of students enrolled in Utah's state higher education system, according to state higher education officials.
Mark Alvarez, a Salt Lake immigration attorney, said he hopes lawmakers can concentrate on issues that can improve educational outcomes for all children regardless of status.
There is growing support, he said, for the Prosperity 2020 proposal headed by the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce that sets high expectations for the state's public and higher education systems. It envisions 90 percent of Utah students reading at grade level by third grade and two-thirds of the Utahns age 20 and older earning college degrees or a skilled trade certificate.
If lawmakers want to explore "friendly policy" in this regard, "why not make it easier for them (undocumented students) to go to college?" Alvarez said, adding that a policy change is needed to allow undocumented students to apply for scholarships.
"I hope the Legislature learned from its experiences last year and starts concentrating on issues the state can do something about," he said.