Sen. Curt Bramble unveiled Monday a bill that changes the start date of Utah’s controversial guest-worker law aimed at undocumented immigrants to July 1, 2015 — two years after it is currently scheduled to take effect.
The Provo Republican is sponsoring SB225 and said its intent is to give the federal government a chance at tackling comprehensive immigration reform — a topic that has gained momentum in Washington as a bipartisan group known as the Gang of Eight has put forth a series of proposals and President Barack Obama pushed for reform in his State of the Union address. The Gang of Eight recently lost Utah Sen. Mike Lee, who stepped away from the group and instead wanted to attempt a piecemeal approach to immigration reform.
But Bramble said the signals from Washington looked encouraging.
“For the first time in a decade it appears Congress may be serious and the administration may be serious about meaningful immigration reform,” Bramble said. “HB116 was a reaction to the abject failure of the federal government to act.”
HB116 was the centerpiece of Utah’s attempt to buck a trend of pushing an enforcement-only approach used by Arizona and it drew heavily on The Utah Compact — a series of guiding principles signed months before the 2011 legislative session that focused on federal solutions and a compassionate approach to illegal immigration.
Under HB116, the state would establish a guest-worker program for illegal immigrants already in the state after they passed background checks, registered for the program and paid a fine, capped at $2,500. The program has a $6 million start-up cost and money collected from fines would be used to run the program as well as set up a restitution fund for those that were victims of identity theft.
Jean Hill, spokeswoman for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, said the guest-worker program Utah created has spawned confusion in the immigrant community.
“We appreciate Senator Bramble’s attempt to address the immediate issues with the guest-worker program,” Hill said. “However, we do have concerns that moving the date of implementation out, with no federal waiver in sight, will provide new opportunities for scam artists to convince undocumented immigrants to hand over their hard-earned money to ‘get in line’ for a non-existent work permit.”
The Diocese, which signed onto The Utah Compact and has pushed for compassionate reform, didn’t endorse HB116 — joining a list of those who worried about it violating the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution.
It was targeted by a movement to repeal the measure and a resolution was passed at the State Republican Party Convention in 2011 that urged it be stricken from the books.
Ron Mortensen, a long-time critic of HB116 and co-founder of the Utah Coalition on Illegal Immigration, said he thought pushing the trigger date back was a disingenuous move by lawmakers.
“My first reaction is — if it’s such a good bill and such a model for the nation, then why not implement it as written?” Mortensen said. “If it’s not worth implementing at this time, why are they keeping an unconstitutional law on the statutes.”
But House Speaker Becky Lockhart said she believed delaying the program was “appropriate” but wasn’t sure Congress would be able to pass sweeping reforms on immigration.
“I have a lot of hope,” Lockhart said. “But less confidence than I have hope.”