With the stroke of a pen, the stamp of a notary and the cheers of about 30 people looking on, Merrill Cook began a yearlong campaign to get on the ballot a petition that would require employers to use E-Verify while tacking on tough penalties for those hiring undocumented workers.
It won't be easy, he acknowledged.
The former Utah congressman said he'll need about 100,000 signatures total and about 37,000 in Salt Lake County alone as he attempts to get the measure on every city and county ballot.
Cook said he doubted he'd be successful in every county but was realistic about the approach.
"It's better than doing nothing," he said.
What he's trying to do is have ballot measures pass that would result in business-license revocations after an employer's second offense in hiring an undocumented worker. The first offense would result in a business having to file quarterly paperwork with the local District Attorney's Office to verify it hasn't hired undocumented workers.
Utah's law now requires businesses with more than 15 employees to use E-Verify to determine the legal status of workers, but the law carries no penalties for a violation.
Cook also sees the ballot-measure route as a way to target HB116, a guest-worker bill signed into law by Gov. Gary Herbert that levies fines against undocumented workers and requires them to pass background checks before being allowed to legally live and work in Utah.
That law doesn't take effect until July 2013, and state officials are trying to get the federal government to sign off on the program though the language in the bill allows for Utah to start it with or without federal approval. Critics charge it is unconstitutional; it is also the subject of a repeal movement.
"We're sending a spear right through what the Legislature just passed a few months ago," Cook said. "And that's Utah's very unconstitutional, totally amnesty-laden guest-worker permit program."
Salt Lake Chamber spokesman Marty Carpenter said HB116 contains provisions and penalties for hiring undocumented workers, including a license being revoked for a year after a third infraction. Fines kick in after the first offense and are $100 per person, jumping to $500 per person after the second offense.
"We're convinced the more people understand HB116, the stronger the support will be for it," Carpenter said.
Among those who signed the petition were Kathleen Aiken and Marylynn Nageli, who sat at a table nearby and bemoaned what they see as undocumented workers taking jobs from legal residents.
Nageli said she recently required tree-trimming and tree-removal services and asked dozens of businesses if they used E-Verify. She said she found two both of which charged more for services.
"If I can use a company that hires people legally, I'm willing to pay more," she said.