Fixing Legal Immigration 

GOP legislators argue states can fix illegal immigration by taking over legal immigration.

click to enlarge John Dougall - ERIC S. PETERSON
  • Eric S. Peterson
  • John Dougall

At the Sept. 10 GOP Immigration Forum, Rep. John Dougall, R-Highland, was the only panelist to share a truly personal story of immigration. “Some of you have won the genetic lottery; I was not so lucky,” Dougall told the gathering of roughly 60 people at the Utah County forum. “I was born in Hollywood, Calif., and had to migrate here.” The joke got a good chuckle, but it wasn’t the last thing Dougall said to show he was clearly the outsider in the panel discussion.

While the other legislators—including Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo, Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Lehi; Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem; and Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper—all sang hosannas to the “free market,” “enforcement,” and “states’ rights,” it was clear there was a schism over the state’s role in the immigration issue.

Sandstrom, Herrod and Madsen were happy to discuss legislation to enforce immigration law that is currently not being enforced by the feds, while Dougall and Stephenson approached the issue not by seeking to fix the illegal problem but by seeking to fix the legal immigration problem. Stephenson spoke of reintroducing guest-worker arrangements like the “Bracero” programs that operated from the 1940s to the mid-’50s, giving temporary worker permits to Mexican agricultural workers to labor in the United States. Dougall pushed the point farther, challenging the states’-rights crowd to ask why Utah shouldn’t allow its citizens to sponsor immigrants to spend time in Utah if their sponsors would be responsible for them—essentially, Dougall was proposing that Utah set up its own embassy.

“We all get to live the American dream,” Dougall told the audience. “Why would we not want to share that with everybody else who wants to live that dream?”

Dougall challenged his fellow panelists for adding to the size of big government by supporting tough measures like e-verify, the system that requires businesses to verify the eligibility of workers.

“Folks will talk about e-verify as being a tool to deal with illegal immigration,” Dougall tells City Weekly in a separate interview. “So what I like to ask my conservative colleagues is, ‘How is having a national ID system—controlled by the Obama administration—that determines which Americans get to work in this country a good idea?”

Dougall understands that getting the recent anti-federal, states’ rights momentum behind a true free-market approach to immigration is a tall order and not just in wresting control of immigration from the federal government. It will also be tough to get fellow legislators behind the fight.

Which invariably would lead to a fight, says local immigration attorney Mark Alvarez. Alvarez agrees that while “Utah solutions” like guest-worker programs and ventures like Dougall’s may be well intentioned, they’re bound to fail, legally.

“The Utah proposals and ideas, both on the anti-immigrant side and the pro-immigrant side, almost definitely would be pre-empted by federal law,” Alvarez says. “It makes little sense to argue that individual states have power over an immigration system that, by definition, involves international borders.” Even as Utah presses forward to create something never done before, Alvarez is not optimistic.

“The Utah laboratory approach seems to me the dream of mad scientists or mad policymakers. Immigration reform has to happen at the national level,” Alvarez says. Even with the weight of Supreme Court precedent going back more than a hundred years of giving the feds control over immigration, Dougall remains a dreamer, perhaps, but he’s also a member of the Legislature that’s already picked more than one fight with the federal government.

“We’re more than willing to fight the battle over guns and land issues and health care,” Dougall says. “But I have yet to see us rise up in sufficient numbers to fight the feds on immigration.”

While the enforcement vs. economics schism in the immigration issue has always been a divide for conservatives, the newest chapter in this debate may be over which route truly embraces the state’s right to chart its own path without federal interference. For Dougall, market forces should rule the day.

In one exchange during the panel, Herrod decried wage depression brought by undocumented immigrants. “It’s absolutely insulting to say Americans won’t do the jobs [undocumented workers do],” Herrod said. “It’s just that Americans won’t do the job at that price.”

Dougall, in turn, asked the crowd whether or not the issue was simply immigrants or those who leech off social services without providing their share in taxes. He asked, by show of hands, how many objected to a self-reliant, tax-paying immigrant, and only one defiant hand shot up from the crowd.

“I wish sometimes we could step back and see that the welfare state is the bigger problem,” Dougall said, before posing another question to the crowd. “Raise your hand if you tell your kids: Graduate from high school and go to college, so you can clean a hotel room?

“We want our kids to get skills in school. As a result, we create a vacuum for unskilled work and wonder why workers want to come here and do unskilled work,” Dougall said. “I promise you, I could find immigrants who know if they clean a hotel room here, then their children can grow up to become a doctor, schoolteacher, attorney or something else, if they can just get that first step on the rung of the ladder.”

Stephenson, who plans to run a proposal for a guest-worker program that would grant temporary work permits for workers in Utah, likewise argued that business models that include guest workers could do more for enforcement and the economy than adding more Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers or simply deputizing local law enforcement to do more ICE work.

“If you require [a] guest worker to buy a surety bond at his expense or at the expense of his employer who would then have a bounty hunter who would keep track of his whereabouts, that works,” Stephenson said. “[But] I’m not counting on a federal worker to do that job.”

Still, the panel’s enforcement proponents argued rule of law had to come before economics. “This great melting pot we have is at risk because illegal immigration is like throwing a brick into this melting pot—that won’t melt,” Rep. Sandstrom told the forum. “These are people that come here to break our laws and snub their noses at our authority.”

Herrod, who responded directly to Dougall’s idea of sponsoring immigrants, argued the idea was impractical. “You still have to regulate—and I like as little regulation as possible—but you just can’t throw the doors open. It isn’t as simple as free trade; there is also a cultural aspect, about getting someone to conform to our values.”

Dougall knows that his ideas are still rough but at least wants to change the discussion on states’ rights and immigration. “I’m just focusing on principles right now and shifting the discussion to broader aspects of freedom and liberty,” Dougall tells City Weekly. “Because I just don’t think enforcement-only solves the problem—and I don’t think it’s the Utah solution.”

That's a point Dougall would likely have told the forum attendees had he had the chance. Unfortunately, time ran out before the moderator could get to Dougall.

Eric S. Peterson:

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