During the previous legislative session, Rep. Lynn Hemingway figured it was time for legislators to formally endorse The Utah Compact, so he carried a joint resolution that said as much and hoped it would get to a floor vote.
Instead, it was quietly killed in the powerful House Rules Committee as Hemingway was told by the chairman it didn’t have enough support.
Now, the Holladay Democrat is going to try again with HJR1 when the session convenes Jan. 28.
His resolution seeks to get the Legislature’s stamp of approval on the Compact — a 2-year-old set of guiding principles designed to establish a compassionate and comprehensive solution to illegal immigration.
“I just feel like it’s time to support what I think the people of the state feel,” Hemingway said.
But Rep. Wayne Harper, R-West Jordan, was chairman of the Rules Committee last session and said he doesn’t think a lot has changed leading into this year’s session to expect a different outcome.
Harper said the issue of immigration appears to be moving forward at the federal level after President Barack Obama signaled it is one of the administration’s top priorities in 2013; and Congress has appointed a bipartisan Gang of Eight that includes Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, to wrestle with the issue.
Harper noted that the call for a federal solution is the first item on The Utah Compact.
“I don’t think there is the passion to deal with immigration as there was in the past,” he said. “It’s a federal issue and they appear to now be addressing it better than they were three or four years ago.”
The resolution is the first immigration-related bill to be unveiled just weeks before the session begins. Already the Legislature will be forced to confront a bill it passed two years ago that some believe is the fruit of The Utah Compact — HB116.
That law, set to take effect in July, establishes a program for undocumented immigrants living in Utah that would allow them to get work permits for themselves and immediate family members after they pass background checks and pay a fine that peaks at $2,500. It was signed by Gov. Gary Herbert but became the subject of a repeal movement that reached its zenith in the summer of 2011 when the state GOP convention passed a resolution seeking to eliminate it.
House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said she is aware of a push to pull out the trigger date on HB116 or delay putting the law into effect while awaiting action at the federal level — though she said she hasn’t staked out a position on a specific option for HB116.
Lockhart said she hasn’t read the resolution, but she believes the Legislature’s actions in 2011 sent a strong message when HB116 and the enforcement-only bills were passed.
“When we’re willing to make law based on the principles of The Compact, it’s pretty clear where you stand,” Lockhart said.
The House Rules Committee this session is almost evenly divided on HB116 — six who voted for it and five who voted against it. Current Rules Committee chairman, Rep. Dean Sanpei, R-Provo, didn’t comment on HJR1. He supported HB116.
Rep. Curt Oda, R-Clearfield, sits on the Rules Committee and said he’d vote against the resolution there. And if it makes it out of Rules, he’d vote against it on the floor, too. He has been an outspoken critic of HB116 as well.
“I’m a firm believer in the Compact for legal immigration, not illegal immigration,” he said.
Paul Mero, president of The Sutherland Institute and one of the original crafters and signers of the Compact, said he’d like to see the Legislature offer a formal backing of the guiding principles. He said he feared lawmakers saw the issue of immigration as campaign politics and that as soon as the election season ended they didn’t care about the issue anymore.
Mero said he wants to see HB116 take effect to show the state was serious about prodding the federal government into a comprehensive solution. Pulling the enactment date would show Utah was more interested in not being Arizona than being a national leader, he said.
But Mero said he can see why The Utah Compact might not need to be endorsed by the Legislature, either.
“I wouldn’t want to corner a legislator and say, ‘Well, you just endorsed the Compact with your vote and now you can’t vote for any special immigration policy that appears counter to its spirit,’ ” Mero said.
The Utah Compact has been signed by more than 5,000 people and has spawned copycat compacts in states such as Iowa, Maine, Indiana and, most recently, in Colorado.
Hemingway said a lot has changed in the last two years nationally and within Utah on immigration and he feels his resolution has a better chance this time around. He noted several Compact foes aren’t in the Legislature this session and he said there isn’t a request from the Utah Coalition on Immigration and Migration to put the brakes on immigration bills, as there was in 2012.
“What I do know is those guys are gone and that was one of the things that kind of made up my mind to do this again,” Hemingway said. “It seems to me the caucus system this year was a little different than in the past and there’s hope on my part now that some of those [hard-liner] elements are gone.”