House Bill 116 passed in the 2011 Legislature, and ever since has been a lightning rod of controversy for seeking a federal waiver to allow Utah to administer its own immigration guest-worker program. Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, sought to repeal the bill that he said would make Utah a “magnet for illegal immigrants.”
Senate Bill 157 as Urquhart proposed would simply repeal 2011’s House Bill 116 that is set to go into effect July 1, 2013. The bill would allow immigrants who came here legally but overstayed a visa to pay a $1,000 fine to receive a guest-worker permit. Immigrants who came into the country illegally would pay a $2,500 fine to enter the program, and all applying workers would have to undergo a criminal-background check.
Urquhart acknowledged that Utah, like other states, only passed the law out of frustration with the federal government’s inability to address the national immigration problem. “The state stepped in and tried to do something,” Urquhart said. “[But] I think what we did was step in and do something unconstitutional. It doesn’t make sense for 50 separate immigration solutions and 50 separate naturalization and amnesty solutions.”
Urquhart said he supports guest-worker programs in general, but that this bill undermines the rule of law by granting protected status to those who have broken the laws by coming to the country illegally. “If you promote that kind of lawlessness -- you’re going to get it,” Urquhart said.
Urquhart was flanked by supporters from the public who took turns blasting HB 116 for its failings and for stepping on the federal government’s constitutional authority to regulate immigration.
Ron Mortensen of the Utah Coalition on Illegal Immigration challenged the bill’s loopholes when it comes to background checks. He pointed out that families of undocumented immigrants could be given permission to stay in the country without criminal-background checks, since the checks are only required of immigrants seeking work. “They could be drug dealers, child molesters, and it’s OK as long as they get a family permit because there’s no background check on them,” Mortensen said.
Mark Alvarez, an immigration advocate who admitted that he favors amnesty for undocumented immigrants at the federal level, nevertheless pointed out HB 116 seeks a federal waiver to administer the program that just doesn’t exist. “There is no waiver for HB 116. So, whether it remains on the books or is repealed it doesn’t matter. If it remains on the books, it’s a dead law,” Alvarez said.
Alvarez argued immigration has to be left to the federal government and called the Utah immigration solution an “absolute farce” -- a claim that drew some frustrated comments from committee members like Sen. Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, who asked what the Legislature should do about the problem. When Alvarez replied that more pressure needed to be put on the state’s federal delegation, Waddoups deadpanned: “I think we’ve done that. Got any other ideas?”
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff was one of only two speakers in favor of maintaining HB 116. He argued that while an immigration waiver didn’t exist specifically, that it is within the power of the federal government and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement to defer deportations and prosecutions of undocumented immigrants who might be participating in Utah’s guest-worker program. Shurtleff argued that the law was constitutional and was simply for the state to manage its undocumented-immigrant community.
“This is not a path to citizenship,” Shurtleff said, “but a way of dealing with a very real issue we have now until the federal government acts—if they ever do.”
With ICE, Shurtleff said the federal agency has only the ability to deport about 4 percent of the undocumented-immigrant population in the country, meaning they have to focus on criminal immigrants. Shurtleff argued that states do have a place to do the heavy lifting in crafting immigration solutions since the federal government lacks the resources to manage the country’s undocumented immigrants.
“Truly, states have been, and will continue to be, these laboratories of democracy,” Shurtleff said. “If enough states do it, that’s when the federal government finally wakes up.” In his closing pitch, Urquhart agreed, and argued that when states pass bills like Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070, which gave law enforcement broad powers to check immigration status of state residents, those enforcement-only pieces of legislation put pressure on the federal government to act on immigration.
“The way states get the federal government to react is with pressure, not with a pressure-release valve,” Urquhart said. “The way to pressure the federal government is to enforce the laws on books that cause the need for the federal government to respond.”
But Urquhart was facing a tough crowd to hear the bill. The committee chair Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, was the Senate co-sponsor of HB 116 in the 2011 Legislature, and the rest of the committee joined unanimously in voting to approve a motion to table Urquhart’s repeal bill.
To find your legislator to contact them about this bill, click here. To contact Sen. Urquhart about his Senate Bill 157, click here. For more updates form the 2012 Legislature, follow @EricSPeterson on Twitter.