Senate panel OK's delay of guest worker program

Published February 27, 2013 3:33 pm

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A Senate committee moved forward Wednesday to push back the start date for Utah's guest worker program by two years in an attempt to give Congress a chance to usher in comprehensive immigration reform.

Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, introduced SB225 and told the Senate Business and Labor Committee the original start date of July 1 would be difficult without a federal waiver being granted to allow Utah to establish a guest worker program.

He said Utah's Washington delegation has indicated Congress will be taking up immigration. "This bill pushes back the effective date until 2015 to give this Congress a chance to do what they're intending to do," Bramble said.

The bill changes the start date of HB116 — the guest worker bill signed into law by Gov. Gary Herbert in 2011 — but doesn't change any aspects of the actual measure. It still would require undocumented immigrants living in Utah to pay a fine of either $1,000 or $2,500, submit to background checks and show proficiency in English to obtain a guest worker visa. The program would also allow families of illegal immigrants to apply for the visa

The measure was highly charged and viewed as unconstitutional by a wide-range of groups — including tea party members who pushed for repeal of the law and local attorneys who said it would invite the federal government to sue the state.

Utah State Tax Commissioner Bruce Johnson testified before the committee in favor of delaying the start date because his agency hadn't been given sufficient time or funding to cover the $6 million cost of establishing the program.

"We have to essentially program a parallel tax system to accommodate this," Johnson said. "We are now in a situation where we still don't have the money and we still don't have the time."

The bill passed out of committee 5-1, with Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangville, opposing the extension.

He said the guest worker program should go forward in July and challenge the federal government on the issue of immigration reform.

Hinkins said because the Utah Compact — a statement of principles to guide compassionate immigration reform, supported by numerous business, religious and community leaders — and its legislative inspiration have been cited as a template for federal reform, the state should be in front on the issue.

"If we're going to lead, we ought to lead on this right now," Hinkins said.

Ron Mortensen, co-founder of the Utah Coalition on Illegal Immigration, argued HB116 was flawed law and there wasn't a point to pushing back a trigger date on something that he believed can't ever work.

But Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, interrupted Mortensen several times to explain the law wasn't up for debate — just its start date.

"I think you've made a great argument for why we don't want it in place at this point in time and why it needs to be extended," Valentine said. " If it's not going to be repealed, it ought to be at least extended so we can review the issues you're raising."

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, called out some opponents of the measure for "hateful rhetoric" during testimony.

"I think it's so easy when something happens to immediately implicate someone's race or immigration status," Weiler said. "I find that offensive.

The bill now goes to the Senate floor.

dmontero@sltrib.com

Twitter: @davemontero