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Op-ed: What’s needed to make Utahns in Congress help immigrants?

By Mark ALvarez

First Published Jun 27 2014 04:50 pm • Last Updated Jun 27 2014 04:50 pm

Two weeks ago, a caller on my radio show suggested two questions for members of Congress who opposed or were stalling on immigration reform:

1. How much money do you want to support reform?

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2. How much money is a broken system costing us?

The "Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act" was introduced by a bipartisan group of senators on April 16, 2013. The proposal S.744 passed by a vote of 68 to 32 on June 27, 2013.

A proposal identical in name and similar in substance to S.744 was introduced in the House of Representatives on Oct. 2, 2013. H.R.15 has 199 sponsors, including three Republicans, but House Republican leadership has held it up. A discharge petition has gotten 190 signatures, 28 short of the number needed to force an up-or-down vote on the measure.

Despite coming from a supposedly immigrant-friendly state, no Utah members of the House of Representatives have signed onto immigration reform. In 2011, Utah lawmakers passed a "Utah solution" that proved anything but: the benefits side had major constitutional and practical defects. The enforcement side was largely struck down in federal court. Immigration is a federal matter.

This week, after having learned the lesson about the federal authority over immigration, 26 Republican legislators and former U.S. Sen. Jake Garn signed a letter urging Utah’s four representatives in the House to pass immigration reform this year. The letter signaled a broken system and what it was costing farmers, ranchers, businesses and individuals in the state.

The basic substance of immigration reform has long been settled. It includes border security, ramped-up employment verification, more efficient worker visa processes, special programs for undocumented students and agricultural workers, increased quotas in visa categories for essential workers (largely technology or STEM) and a legalization program.

Immigration reform concerns timing. The short-term politics have been muddled by the Republican primary season. Some believe that electoral concerns will push reform back until 2015, 2017 or even later. I remain optimistic.

That optimism does not come from politicians, pundits, lawyers or even citizens. It comes from immigrants, documented and otherwise. In 2010, when Utah politicians discussed harsh Arizona-style proposals, most undocumented immigrants kept going with the confidence that their honest striving would not be punished. They were not distracted by rumors of state work permits that most knew would be unconstitutional, distant fictions of a warped political narrative.

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Through the debates over state and federal proposals, restrictive and more open policies, undocumented immigrants continued to work hard, contribute and tend to their families and communities. More than nine in ten have lived in the U.S. for more than five years. Six in ten have lived here for more than a decade.

They lived in Utah through the Arizona-style crackdown law, the economic crisis, federal attempts in 2006 to criminalize undocumented status, and the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001. Many also lived through sad stories of acquaintances, friends and relatives caught by the injustices of a broken system.

Undocumented immigrants deserve a clearer path forward. For them and for us, the economic, societal and humanitarian costs of inaction are too high. What do Utah members of Congress want to support immigration reform?

Mark Alvarez is an attorney, immigration specialist for Telemundo Utah and host of ‘Sin Rodeos’.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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