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Utah Legislature: Senate panel backs E-Verify bill

Sen. Chris Buttars, right, listens as Ron Mortensen of the Utah Coalition on Illegal Immigration backs Buttars' bill.
Sen. Chris Buttars, right, listens as Ron Mortensen of the Utah Coalition on Illegal Immigration backs Buttars' bill.
T.J. Kirkpatrick, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A proposal to require all Utah businesses to verify employees' legal right to work has earned approval from a Senate committee, but a criminal penalty attached to the mandate will likely be stripped away before it goes before the full Senate.

SB251, sponsored by Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, would require that all companies in the state utilize federal electronic screening programs to ensure any new hires may work in the country legally. He said the bill will create jobs by forcing undocumented workers elsewhere.

"This bill will give a lot more jobs to our work force because, if a person is here from wherever on Earth … if they can't get a job because of E-Verify (federal electronic screening system), they're going to leave the state."

Buttars constructed the bill so that a business that failed to comply with the requirement would face a variety of penalties, including losing any license issued by the state; being banned from state contracts; and a possible class B misdemeanor, a criminal charge that carries a $1,000 fine and six months in jail.

The criminal penalty aspect drew a torrent of criticism in both public testimony and from members of the Senate Business and Labor Standing Committee. The committee's chairman, Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, characterized the application of the criminal penalty in the bill as too vague, and one likely to bring the entire bill down in a legal challenge.

American Civil Liberties Union of Utah attorney Marina Lowe also expressed concern with the criminal provision, noting that while two other states, Arizona and Oklahoma, had statewide legal presence statutes, neither had attached criminal sanctions. In doing so, Utah would be "going farther than any other piece of legislation in any state."

Some heavyweights in the Utah business community also showed up to rail against the bill, including the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, Utah Manufacturing Association and Utah Retail Merchants Association. The chamber's general counsel, Robin Riggs, said the fallout from such a law would be felt by the entire state economy.

"We all know that the engine that drives this economy is small business," Riggs said. "When you impose a mandate on businesses top to bottom, no matter how much it costs, it imposes a chilling effect on productivity."

The bill's proponents argue that the federal government has dropped the ball on immigration enforcement and that it is now the state's obligation to take action to stem illegal activity associated with undocumented residents.

Ron Mortensen, co-founder of the Utah Coalition on Illegal Immigration, said an estimated 50,000 Utah children have had their Social Security numbers used fraudulently by undocumented workers.

Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, said that states have been put in the awkward and unfortunate position of having to deal with immigration issues by lack of enforcement action at the federal level. He noted that while the bill was not in finished form, it should still be moved forward.

"This is something that needs to happen," he said. "Our employers need to verify that they have legal citizens working these jobs."