Utah lawmakers modeled for Congress the path forward on immigration reform two years ago. They passed bills that would establish a unique sponsored guest worker program and provide a workable way for currently undocumented immigrants to be employed in Utah without creating a path to citizenship, and it would weed out dangerous criminals without overburdening local law enforcement.
The bills, HB116 and HB469, won't take effect in Utah until at least 2015. The trigger date has been delayed in part because of legal challenges. However, the bills won't accomplish much without meaningful federal immigration reform that complements and reinforces these efforts.
At the moment, efforts to bring about such reform are progressing with fits and starts. The so-called gang of eight in the Senate has worked hard to bring about a bipartisan measure that would satisfy the concerns on both sides of the aisle. The House, meanwhile, is in an even less certain position, with indications last week that bipartisan efforts to craft a bill were near collapse. Given the messy way representative government works, it is likely a final reform bill would resemble only part of what the Senate currently is mulling and part of that for which other lawmakers are clamoring. And that is how it should be.
Contrary to what some critics have asserted, the current immigration reform process in the Senate bears little resemblance to the Affordable Care Act. That law was passed with no bipartisanship whatsoever. Current immigration reform efforts are bipartisan and open. We would prefer the bill had fewer than its approximately 1,000 pages, but the issues are complex and all sides must understand that no interested party will get everything it wants from of a compromise solution. Certain principles should provide the basic framework for reform. These have to do with family preservation and basic human dignities.
All sides should acknowledge that the status quo is intolerable. There is no viable method for weeding out dangerous criminals from among those immigrants who have entered the country with a sincere intent to work and provide a better life for their families. Perhaps worst of all, there is no orderly way to ensure that industries that rely on immigrant labor remain viable.
We have met recently with representatives of agricultural interests who described the bureaucratic nightmare of trying to keep up with rules under the federal H2A Visa worker program. This is supposed to provide farmers with reliable seasonable help, but too often creates delays that result in withered crops or livestock not properly attended.
Utah sheep ranchers rely on skilled foreign labor to shear sheep because it requires skills not generally possessed by Americans, and yet they face unrealistic deadlines, a fickle bureaucratic process and the threat of stiff fines for violations. The immigration reform efforts emerging in the Senate would dramatically improve access to needed agricultural workers.
Many Americans don't understand the role immigrant labor plays in the nation's economy or the unique agricultural skills many of those immigrants possess. Those who work in these industries pose little risk of committing crimes compared to other undocumented immigrants, and yet they and their families are too often treated with the same suspicions as drug runners.
Whatever immigration bill Congress eventually passes ought to allow for workers to continue helping the U.S. economy with the dignity of legal status, even if such status doesn't necessarily lead to citizenship. It ought to secure the U.S. border, to ensure that those who enter the country are the ones interested in contributing. It ought to keep families intact and allow them to prosper through sincere labor. It ought to promote human dignity and compassion.
Three years ago, representatives of business, religious and political interests signed The Utah Compact, which was a precursor to Utah's immigration laws. The compact is not itself a policy, it is a thoughtful declaration of principles that elevates core values — a free, humane and prosperous society; respect for the rule of law; respect for families; respect for individual liberty; and respect for the dignity and humanity of each individual — above all other considerations.
That is the framework Utah's families have said they would like to see. It is what Utah's politicians ought to be pushing in Washington.