In the wake of President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address that prominently featured the theme of comprehensive immigration reform, leaders in both chambers of the Utah Legislature said Wednesday they were leaning toward delaying the start of a state-based guest-worker program by a couple of years.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said preliminary talks were under way because HB116 was "not ready to implement" and the message from Washington has been clearer than ever that comprehensive immigration reform looked to be a serious possibility.
President Barack Obama on immigration reform
The president didn’t devote much time to immigration in his State of the Union address, but he stressed the importance of passing legislation now that there is broad-based agreement on the need for comprehensive reform.
“Our economy is stronger when we harness the talents and ingenuity of striving, hopeful immigrants. And right now, leaders from the business, labor, law enforcement, faith communities — they all agree that the time has come to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Now is the time to do it.…
Real reform means strong border security, and we can build on the progress my administration has already made -- putting more boots on the Southern border than at any time in our history and reducing illegal crossings to their lowest levels in 40 years.
Real reform means establishing a responsible pathway to earned citizenship — a path that includes passing a background check, paying taxes and a meaningful penalty, learning English, and going to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally.
And real reform means fixing the legal immigration system to cut waiting periods and attract the highly-skilled entrepreneurs and engineers that will help create jobs and grow our economy. …
Send me a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the next few months, and I will sign it right away. And America will be better for it. …
"We’re seeing a lot more movement toward a solution to the immigration issue in the country and, consequently, we’re in some discussions right now in moving our date forward a year or two," Niederhauser said. "Those discussions have just begun."
Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, was the architect of HB116 and said the attempt to change the July 1 start date for the law would emerge from the Senate. Because the bill-submission deadline was Feb. 7, Bramble said he would have to request from the Senate floor that a bill file be opened. He wasn’t sure when he would do that.
"This Congress is convened for the next two years," Bramble said. "One of the stated objectives of HB116 was, in the absence of federal action, to have a state plan in place. Given the optimism from both Republicans and Democrats, it appears the federal government is going to do what they’re constitutionally obligated to do. It’s appropriate for us to … let them do what they say they’re going to do."
Obama, in his speech, laid out a desire to see an increase in visas, "a responsible pathway to earned citizenship" and requiring immigrants to learn English and "get to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally."
His concepts largely mirror what HB116 tried to accomplish in Utah when it was passed under duress in 2011 as part of a series of measures aimed at illegal immigration.
The law would require illegal immigrants in Utah to submit to background checks, pay a fine and develop some proficiency in English to obtain a permit to live and work here.
But the law was so controversial that it was targeted by a Republican Party resolution carried by Keri Witte that sought its repeal. That resolution passed at the state GOP convention in 2011.
Witte said Obama’s comments "flirted with amnesty." She also took a dim view of delaying HB116’s trigger date.
"I support repealing the law. It’s unenforceable," she said. "It violates federal law, so it shouldn’t even be on the books. If they [lawmakers] think it’s so wonderful … why not just implement it? There’s something wrong there."
House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said she knew there were people still upset with HB116 and that nothing would change their minds.
However, she said, the Legislature had to deal with it given the $6 million price tag to start the program and the lack of federal permission to do so.
"I’d be in favor of moving the date out by a couple of years," Lockhart said, adding, "It just needs to be done this session."
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