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Activate Utah's immigration law

Published January 12, 2013 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A serious, often contentious but highly productive debate raged in Utah over state-based immigration reforms from April 2010 — when Arizona's infamous SB 1070 was signed — until March 2011, when Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed HB116 into law.

By the time the political dust had settled, nearly every supporter of HB116 had won re-election, and nearly every zealous opponent of the bill was no longer in office. Public opinion in Utah swung from 70 percent in favor of an Arizona approach (in April 2010) to 70 percent in favor of an alternative Utah solution.

The new law creates a legal mechanism to bring undocumented immigrants in Utah to the surface of society and make them accountable to their neighbors. It does not naturalize them; it legalizes them through registration, fees and a work permit.

The work permit requires admission by an undocumented immigrant that he or she is in Utah illegally; requires a stiff fee or fine; requires a thorough criminal background check; requires actual work for the permit holder; mandates complete accountability from the permit holder's immediate family and the same from employers of permit holders.

Utah's common sense approach to comprehensive immigration policy based on ensuring public safety, protecting freedom and promoting economic prosperity was — and remains to this day — an enlightened approach.

Even within the pro-HB116 camp there were two motivations for this policy effort. The first was simply to keep Arizona out of Utah. Many supporters of the Utah Compact and HB116 wanted to prevent the Legislature from passing its own version of Arizona's SB1070. The second was to press the federal government for solutions.

Like most states heavily influenced by undocumented immigrants, Utah has begged the federal government to solve the legal immigration problem in the hope that any worthwhile effort might mitigate the illegal immigration problem. Most of our state's highest-ranking public officials and community leaders have flown to Washington, D.C., and visited with White House staff and congressional leaders, pleading with them to take ownership and leadership of immigration policy.

As recently as the first week of December, a delegation of Utahns visited with federal officials, recommending the Utah solution as a model for federal action and holding up the Utah Compact as context for a national debate. All the while, in the back of our minds, HB116 was set for enactment on July 1, 2013. We set that date to trigger the federal government into action — come what may.

Today, the fear among some supporters of HB116 is that the federal action triggered by enactment will only amount to a lawsuit against our state. They want to push back the enactment date another couple of years or get rid of it entirely. That would be a grievous mistake in political judgment.

To extend or remove the trigger date for HB116 would be an affront to all the political capital, united coalitions and purposeful policymaking that has occurred.

If some are concerned that HB116 exposes Utah businesses to potential federal lawsuits, the answer isn't to undo the law. It is to indemnify businesses against federal lawsuits.

If some leaders are now worried that implementation of HB116 costs too much, they should reread the fiscal note accompanying the bill. Utah would make lots of money from HB116. We counted the costs when the bill was debated, and the costs were minimal compared with the savings and revenue from newly accountable undocumented immigrants.

This is no time for timidity. The courage displayed during the legislative fight over HB116 needs to show its face once again.

Paul Mero is president of the Salt Lake City-based Sutherland Institute.