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Noncitizens could serve as police officers in Utah under a bill that’s nearly on its way to the governor

Proponents of the bill say it could help with recruiting diverse candidates to serve within law enforcement agencies.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) The Salt Lake City Airport Police, established in 1984, is presented with a new patch and badge as they are subsumed into the Salt Lake City Police Department, in this Feb. 26, 2019, file photo. A new bill that received final passage in the Utah House Wednesday would allow noncitizens to serve as police officers in the state.

The Utah House gave approval Wednesday to a bill that would allow noncitizens to serve as police officers — so long as they are lawful residents, have been in the United States for at least five years and have legal authorization to work.

Legal residents have long been able to serve in the U.S. military. But those same immigrants have not been able to wear a police badge in the state or serve as a police dispatcher.

“We have a lot of people that are here legally but are not U.S. citizens that would love to have the opportunity to be in law enforcement or a dispatcher,” noted Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield and the bill’s House sponsor.

He said the bill would also help law enforcement with recruiting, “because right now there’s a huge shortage” of people who want to be police officers.

That’s a benefit also espoused by local law enforcement groups that have expressed support for the bill as a way to increase diversity among their ranks. Also speaking in support of the bill was 22-year-old Park City Police Department employee Enrique Sanchez, a DACA recipient who has long dreamed of becoming a police officer.

During debate on the House floor, Ray fielded several questions about the five-year requirement included for officers and dispatchers in the bill, with Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, asking whether most legal residents would at that time be eligible for citizenship.

“We have a completely screwed up immigration system and it takes some people 20 something years to do that,” Ray said. “So there are a lot of them just because of the constraints from the federal side, it takes them a lot longer.”

Thurston — who noted that his wife and several family members have gone through the immigration process to become legal permanent residents — said he’s heard concerns that the bill would discourage people from gaining citizenship but argued it would actually do the opposite.

“Everybody that I know that’s a legal permanent resident would become a U.S. citizen if they could figure out how to do it and if they had the money,” he said. “I think the money is actually the barrier, so anybody that says this will discourage them, it actually makes it the other way around. You can get a good job in law enforcement, then you have the money to be able to pay all of the fees and all of that process to become a U.S. citizen.”

If it were up to him, Thurston said he would remove the five year constraint and make it two or three years to help improve work opportunities for legal permanent residents in the state.

Rep. Clare Collard, D-Magna, disclosed during debate that she is a naturalized citizen and also expressed support for the bill, which she said is “very important to our immigrant community.”

“I am very grateful for the opportunities that I have received in this country,” she said. “... I think most permanent residents would be absolutely thrilled to serve their country in this way.”

After passing with a unanimous vote Wednesday morning, the House later recalled the bill for an amendment from Rep. Ryan Wilcox that removed the requirement that a noncitizen be a “permanent” legal resident. The amended version of the bill, SB102, passed with a 65-4 vote and will now go back to the Senate for agreement on the changes before heading to the governor’s desk for his signature or veto.

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