A Senate bill to bring Utah’s undocumented immigrants out of the shadows and into a database that would allow them to live and work in the state, survived a committee hearing yesterday by a single vote.
Senate Bill 60, sponsored by Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake City made its first appearance yesterday in the Senate Judiciary and Law Enforcement Committee after months of preparation and planning that extended right up until its committee hearing. Even as a press conference was held in the Senate caucus room announcing a new senate immigration bill, Robles could be seen making a last minute pitch of her bill to Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Eagle Mountain, who would later be the swing vote on the committee that passed her bill out with 3 yes votes to 2 no votes.
The bill would create a pilot program that would allow undocumented immigrants in Utah to register with the Department of Public Safety and work in the state so long as they underwent criminal background checks and enrolled in English and civics classes, at their own expense, meant to help better integrate them into their broader communities. Robles argued that her bill would assist law enforcement’s pursuit of criminal aliens better than enforcement-heavy bills like the one sponsored by Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem.
“This reduces that universe of the [undocumented] population’s criminal element,” that law enforcement has to investigate, Robles said, citing figures of an estimated 110,000 undocumented immigrants in Utah.
Her republican co-sponsor, Rep. Jeremy Peterson, R-Ogden told the committee that the pilot program would provide policymakers with information to give them a firmer grasp of this shadow demographic. “This will give us a first of its kind census of who is here,” Peterson said. “As a policy making body that will allow us to make better decisions on budgets and other issues.”
Paul Mero, the director of the conservative think tank the Sutherland Institute, and also a major collaborator on the bill, argued that the legislation was by no means amnesty. “This does not give anyone legal status, this does not provide a get-out-of-jail-free card, this is not a special privilege for anyone,” Mero said. “This bill takes an unfunded mandate from the federal government and turns it into human productivity.”
Robles also noted amendments to the bill would allow revenue collected from the program would help fund restitution for victims of identity theft. Attorney General Mark Shurtleff also weighed in on the presentation, speaking of the bill’s ability to help Utah law enforcement.
“We believe the best way to enforce the rule of law is to incentivize legal conduct,” Shurtleff told the committee. “And that’s exactly what SB60 does.”
Critics on both sides of the immigration debate, however, took issue with the bill. Mark Alvarez, a Salt Lake City immigration attorney and member of the activist group United for Social Justice, challenged bill proponents who argued the bill was in line with the Utah Compact, a document advocating humane and comprehensive immigration reform that was endorsed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
“Some have used the Utah Compact to push SB60 and other state solutions, but the Utah Compact calls for a federal [immigration] solution,” Alvarez told the committee. “The Utah Compact does not claim to be a blueprint for policy. It is a guide for discussion that we should follow the U.S. Constitution as the supreme law of the land—it does not go the other way.”
Robert Wren, director of Utahns for Immigration Reform and Enforcement, pointed out to the committee that the bill requires a waiver from the federal government before its implemented, which could simply mean maintaining the “status quo.” “A great deal of time and money is going to be spent while we lobby for a waiver,” Wren said.
In committee discussion the only republican to ask Robles about her bill was chairman Madsen, who expressed plenty of reservations. He suggested that the bill ought to grant preference to undocumented immigrants who may have come to the country legally but over stayed on their visas, versus those who illegally crossed the border. “The difference to me is like inviting someone over to dinner who then perhaps eats too much or stays too long as opposed to someone who kicks down your door and eats all the food in your kitchen or pantry,” Madsen said.
Despite reservations, Madsen wanted more input on the bill from his fellow legislators. “Today I’m going to vote on this bill because I want to see this robust discussion continue,” he said.
He was the only republican on the committee to do so, casting the pivotal third yes vote to clear the way for the bill’s discussion on the Senate floor.