Utah congressman’s fix for immigration problems? Let states create their own visa programs.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Utah Congressman John Curtis is shown in this Aug. 23, 2019, file photo speaking at the Sutherland Institute in Salt Lake City. On Tuesday Curtis announced he is introducing a bill attempting to give states more power to regulate immigration within their borders.

Immigrant workers could receive state-sponsored visas under a federal pilot program proposed by Utah Republican Rep. John Curtis and supported by Gov. Gary Herbert.

In a prepared statement, Curtis said Tuesday his proposal would take “another step towards fixing our broken immigration system” by allowing states to implement visa programs that meet local industry needs while allowing workers to move throughout or between states.

“While every state is unique, neighboring states share commonalities that don’t end at lines on a map," Curtis said. “We see this in the West, particularly in the agriculture and tourism sectors, where some seasonal operations stretch across multiple states.”

Curtis’ legislation proposes a sharp departure from long-standing U.S. policy and practice that immigration is exclusively a federal matter.

The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently upheld federal law regulating immigration and blocking states from enacting statutes that wade into what legal scholars have dubbed “this area of federal dominion.”

Utah passed its own guest-worker program in 2011, but it was later repealed because the state was never able to obtain a federal waiver that would have been needed to implement it.

HB116 sought to allow undocumented immigrants already in the state to obtain a guest-worker permit — and stay in the state — by paying a fine, submitting to a background check and showing proficiency in English.

It’s sponsor, state Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, said one of the main purposes of his legislation was to send a message to Congress that it is possible to find a rational, reasonable solution to the immigration issue.

In announcing the introduction of Curtis’ bill Tuesday, his office also released statements supporting his measure from Utah’s GOP governor, Salt Lake Chamber President Derek Miller and Ron Gibson, president of the Utah Farm Bureau Federation.

Gibson said Utah’s agricultural industries are limited by the current federal visa program, which restricts the ability of workers to move between employers as the seasons progress. Industries with year-round workers, Gibson said, are “in desperate need of visa reform.”

And Herbert, in his letter to Curtis, said the benefit of the congressman’s bill are obvious. Each state has a different mix of industries, educational emphases, employer needs and regulations, the governor said, and those factors change over time.

Herbert, who had signed the previous guest-worker bill into law, also said that as governor he would “jump at the opportunity” to design a work visa program for the state.

“We need high-skilled immigrants working for our tech companies and in our educational institutions, and seasonal workers in our tourism and agricultural industries,” Herbert said. “We simply don’t have enough workers to fill the jobs.”

Herbert’s statement in support of Curtis’ bill follows a letter the governor sent last month to President Donald Trump asking that more refugees be resettled in Utah and saying the state has plenty of room and resources to support those in need.

"They become contributors in our schools, churches and other civic institutions, even helping serve more recent refugees and thus generating a beautiful cycle of charity,” Herbert wrote. “This marvelous compassion is simply embedded in our state’s culture.”

According to Curtis, his proposal would allow states to opt in to a new pilot program and sponsor three-year visas, with the allocation of those visas customized to each state’s economy and workforce needs. The bill would also include incentives allowing states to earn additional visa allotments by complying with program rules and encouraging states to enter into interstate compacts that provide additional flexibility to workers and employers.

“My bill will allow states to enter into agreements with each other to share workers,” Curtis said, “and give employers the stability to retain the same workers, regardless of where their operation takes them.”

The U.S. Supreme Court, beginning in 1875, has consistently struck down state laws on immigration as an unconstitutional infringement on federal power, according to the book, “History of U.S. Immigration Law and Policy,” written by University of Minnesota law professors David Weissbrodt and Laura Danielson.

“Modern statutes, Supreme Court decisions, and federal agency regulations attest to the [absolute] nature of this [federal] power,” according to the 2004 book.