In the first move by a state to extend legal recognition to illegal immigrant laborers, the Utah Legislature has passed immigration bills that include a guest worker program that would allow unauthorized foreigners to work legally in the state.
With the immigration package, passed in both chambers of the Republican-controlled Legislature late Friday, Utah made a sharp break with the hard-line trend in state immigration legislation that has been led by Arizona, which passed a strict enforcement law last April.
Utah’s package includes measures to tighten enforcement against illegal immigrants that echo Arizona’s tough stance — like a requirement that the police check the immigration status of anyone stopped for a felony or a serious misdemeanor. But supporters said the hybrid package offered an alternative to states, including those controlled by Republicans, that are seeking to avoid the costly political polarization and legal challenges that followed Arizona’s law and also want to recognize the need of some businesses for immigrant labor in spite of high unemployment nationally.
The guest worker bill came after intense lobbying by business and farm groups as well as by some immigrant advocates, and it enjoyed the quiet but all-important endorsement of the Mormon Church. It is likely to raise many of the same constitutional questions as the Arizona law, including whether it intrudes on areas of immigration law reserved exclusively for the federal government. Central provisions of Arizona’s law, known as SB 1070, were suspended by federal courts pending a lawsuit by the Obama administration.
But in contrast to Arizona’s approach, Utah lawmakers framed their bill to set up a negotiation, rather than a confrontation, between the governor and federal authorities. Gov. Gary R. Herbert, a Republican who handily won election in November, is expected to sign the bill.
“Utah is the anti-Arizona,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a group in Washington that favors legislation by Congress to grant legal status to illegal immigrants. “Instead of indulging the fantasy that you can drive thousands of people out of your state, it combines enforcement with the idea that those who are settled should be brought into the system.”
Under one bill approved Friday, Utah would issue a two-year work permit to illegal immigrants who could prove they had been living and working in the state. To qualify, immigrants would have to pass a criminal background check and pay fines of up to $2,500.
The bill gives the governor until 2013 to negotiate with federal immigration authorities for a waiver for the guest worker program. Under federal law, it is a violation for an employer to knowingly hire an illegal immigrant. If no waiver has been obtained by then, the guest worker program would go into effect anyway.
Under a separate bill, also approved Friday, officers would be required to check the immigration status of anyone they stop on suspicion of committing a felony or serious misdemeanor.
Lawmakers revised that bill to remove terms borrowed from the Arizona law that would have allowed the police to ask immigration questions based on a “reasonable suspicion” that a person they stopped was an illegal immigrant. That provision, among others, was strongly opposed by Latinos in Arizona, who said it would lead to racial profiling.
State Rep. Bill Wright, a Republican who was the sponsor of the guest worker bill in the House, said it was intended to be a practical way to deal with illegal immigrants in the state. “I’m a very conservative Republican; I’m not moderate at all,” he said. But, he said, “we literally do not have the ability to remove those who are here illegally.”
The enforcement measure was sponsored by state Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, a Republican who has been an outspoken proponent of following Arizona’s lead on immigration.
Many groups in Utah hoped to avoid the expense and furor provoked by Arizona’s bill. In November, a range of groups signed a proposal called the Utah Compact, which laid out principles that included respect for the law but also supported a free-market business approach and opposed measures that would separate families by deportation. It was signed by the Salt Lake Chamber, a statewide business group; the Roman Catholic Church; the Salt Lake City Police Department and mayor’s office; and local immigration advocate groups.
The Mormon Church, which had been cautious on the issue, did not sign the compact but immediately endorsed it.
Not everyone in Utah was happy with the new immigration measures. Several hundred protesters from immigrant organizations demonstrated outside the Capitol on Saturday, calling the enforcement bill racist and urging Herbert to veto it, The Salt Lake Tribune reported.
David Leopold, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said Utah’s bills were “another ill-advised attempt by a state to regulate immigration.” He warned that the effort “dangerously treads into a policy area that is the sole province of the federal government.”
The Utah measures, coming from one of the most conservative states in the nation, open an avenue for action for Republican politicians who have been concerned that the strident tone of supporters of Arizona’s law — including Gov. Jan Brewer and Russell Pearce, the Arizona Senate majority leader who wrote the bill — has alienated Latino voters.
Some Republican leaders have argued that to win the presidency in 2012, they need to increase Latino support in states like California, Nevada, New York and Texas. Among others, Newt Gingrich, a potential presidential candidate, and Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, have pressed fellow Republicans to moderate their speech on immigration.
“Utah thought Arizona’s law would backfire,” said Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, a Republican group that has been working to draw the party toward an immigration policy with more appeal to Hispanics. “It was not business-friendly, and it would drive away workers and investment. Utah has provided conservative arguments for passing a different kind of measure.”
Arizona’s immigration enforcement law drew a boycott by the nation’s most prominent Latino organizations and cost the state $86 million in lost convention and tourism business, according to an estimate by the Center for American Progress, a group that opposed the measure. Pearce has proposed a new package of immigration restrictions that go far beyond last year’s.
Another bill that passed the Utah House and is likely to be approved next week in the Senate would set up a partnership with Nuevo Leon state in Mexico to bring temporary farm workers to Utah through the existing federal guest worker program.
Supporters of the bills in Utah said they should be a model for action on immigration by Congress. “It’s doable,” said Wesley Smith, director of public policy for the Salt Lake Chamber. “The extremes have dominated the immigration debate for so long, it makes it so refreshing to see that a practical solution is possible.”