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Utah lawmakers may gut guest-worker law

Published November 9, 2012 4:22 pm

Legislature • Key legislators seek tougher immigration policies for the state.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Now that elections are over, top Utah lawmakers are looking at acting in the upcoming legislative session to scrap the trigger date of a controversial guest-worker law as well as changing current employer-enforcement laws designed to curb the hiring of illegal immigrants.

The push to kill the July 1, 2013, effective date of HB116 — the state-run guest-worker program — is being led by Sens. Curtis Bramble, R-Provo, and Steve Urquhart, R-St. George.

"If we don't repeal the trigger, we must establish the whole program," Bramble said. "It will cost the state a lot of money to set up, and any employer who hires with the state-issued permit would be subject to being sued by the federal government."

The law was crafted in 2011 as part of a broader attempt by Utah to deal with immigration reform on a comprehensive level. In addition to the guest-worker law, Herbert signed into law an enforcement-only bill that is tied up in court and an agreement with Nuevo León in Mexico to streamline the process for bringing guest workers into Utah. Bramble was a key architect, however, in leading immigration reform in 2011.

The group of laws was passed to conform to the spirit of The Utah Compact, a document drafted by religious, political and business leaders as a template for a more compassionate approach to immigration.

The compact, which celebrates its two-year anniversary Sunday, inspired copycats in several states and was viewed as a response to Arizona's enforcement-only law, SB1070.

Supporters of The Utah Compact saw the state's approach as a way to avoid looking like Arizona, and HB116 was viewed as the translation of the compact principles into policy.

The law would allow illegal immigrants who could prove they were living in Utah prior to May 2011 to pay a $2,500 fine for entering the country illegally or pay $1,000 for overstaying a visa. It also would establish U-Verify, a state-based version of E-Verify, the federal program to screen job applicants' legal status.

After passing background checks, the workers and their families could be issued work visas through the Department of Public Safety. Currently, only the federal government is allowed to issue visas.

House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said the trigger date on HB116 has to be addressed during an all-day immigration session with the caucus on Dec. 18.

"It will be a top issue for us," Lockhart said.

Paul Mero, president of The Sutherland Institute and signer of the compact, opposed removal of the enactment date and creation of a new E-Verify law. He said those moves would put Utah in the same category as Arizona.

"From the beginning of this whole process, it is incumbent upon the state to press the issue," Mero said. "You pull the enactment date, you no longer push the issue. All you have is a think-tank policy idea and, without the enactment date, it's just an idea. And as much as I like the idea, I would rather see it be law."

Stephen Sandstrom, a former lawmaker from Orem, last carried an E-Verify law into the 2011 Legislature, but it failed to get out of committee. It largely mirrored Arizona's E-Verify law that stripped businesses of licenses for not complying with the federally run system.

Utah has a version of E-Verify on the books, but it has no penalties for businesses that don't sign up for it.

Keri Witte, who successfully pushed to get a resolution passed to repeal HB116 at the Republican State Party Convention in 2011, said she wants to see a tougher E-Verify law in place, and she wants HB116 scrapped entirely. She said pulling the start date isn't enough.

"It was rushed through and cobbled together at the last minute," Witte said. "I think a bill that poorly thought through and that poorly written shouldn't be on the books."

dmontero@sltrib.comTwitter: @davemontero