Top Utah lawmakers said they're optimistic about the federal government staying out of a lawsuit against the state's enforcement-only immigration law after having a "productive" closed-door meeting with key U.S. Department of Justice lawyers Tuesday.
Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who called the meeting at the Capitol, said he was able to go over "line by line" provisions in HB497 and believes the attorneys "see Utah is doing something different."
But Shurtleff said he doesn't know what the department's ultimate decision will be.
"I'd hate to guess," he said. "I hope they don't join the lawsuit."
Participants in the 90-minute meeting said Justice Department Assistant Attorneys General Tony West and Tom Perez were concerned by a line in the law that requires local law enforcement to check the legal status of riders in a vehicle when there was reasonable suspicion the driver was transporting undocumented immigrants.
Utah officials were told that the provision was harsher than Georgia's enforcement-only immigration law, which says local police "may" check the status of vehicle passengers if they have reasonable suspicion the driver is transporting undocumented immigrants, participants said.
Perez heads up the civil rights division of the Justice Department and West is the director of the civil division of the department. Both report directly to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who has met with Shurtleff in the past on the issue. Shurtleff said this was his third meeting with Justice Department officials since HB497's passage in March.
Xochitl Hinojosa, spokeswoman for the Justice Department, would only confirm the two attorneys met with Utah officials at the Capitol, saying it was a "part of our ongoing review of immigration-related laws that were passed in several states."
Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake City, was the lone Democrat in the meeting and was joined by Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, and the sponsor of HB497, Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem.
Robles said it was made clear to West and Perez that HB497 was part of a package of immigration reform bills signed into law by Gov. Gary Herbert including HB116, which was the state's attempt at granting visas to undocumented immigrants living and working in the state prior to May 20. Undocumented immigrants would pay a fine and be subjected to background checks when the law takes effect in 2013.
"I told them 99.9 percent of the bills you are meeting on are enforcement-only," Robles said. "But in Utah you also have HB116 and for any legislation to have passed here, it required them to be packaged and passed together. I think they are taking that into consideration and looking at Utah in a unique way."
HB497 passed both the House and Senate by large margins and in each body, two Democrats joined in voting for its passage. And while Robles voted against HB497, she said she recognized it was part of a raft of immigration bills including the guest-worker law and felt her presence in the meeting Tuesday signaled bipartisan support for Utah's attempt at a comprehensive solution.
"I think it was important to convey that," Robles said.
The lawsuit against HB497, which was filed in U.S. District Court more than six months ago by the American Civil Liberties Union and National Immigration Law Center (NILC), is scheduled to be heard by Judge Clark Waddoups on Dec. 2. The law is currently not in effect as the judge issued a temporary restraining order on enacting the law.
Karen Tumlin, managing attorney for the NILC, said the plaintiffs haven't formally asked the federal government to join in the lawsuit and will go forward regardless of DOJ's decision.
She noted lawsuits on enforcement-only immigration bills have gone ahead in Georgia and South Carolina without the federal government taking part.
"We think [DOJ joining the Utah suit is] the right thing for them to do and would be consistent with the positions they've taken in Alabama and Arizona," Tumlin said.
Sandstrom said he was optimistic about the government staying out of the pending litigation but also said "they don't really tip their hand."
The meeting came on the eve of an all-day national immigration summit being hosted by Shurtleff in Salt Lake City.