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'Utah Solution' to immigration to be put to the test

SALT LAKE CITY — Only time will tell if Utah has really found a solution to illegal immigration.

State lawmakers said from the outset of the 2011 legislative session that they wanted a "Utah solution," meaning they wanted to distance the state from the fallout in Arizona.

That much seems to be accomplished. So far pundits nationwide have viewed the series of bills passed in the Utah Legislature as a less punitive, more even-handed approach.

But how effective some of those measures will be, if they're implemented at all, remains a question mark, as does whether Utah will move the illegal immigration debate along at the national level.

"What was ultimately crafted has shown to be balanced, pragmatic, innovative and in so many ways a uniquely Utah solution," said Marty Carpenter, Salt Lake Chamber communications and marketing director. The chamber worked heavily behind the scenes on the legislation.

"If you had to boil it down to a sentence it would be 'Utah is not Arizona,' " he said.

The package, which taken as a whole garnered bipartisan support, includes provisions for tighter enforcement (HB497), a guest worker plan (HB116), a migrant worker partnership with Mexico (HB466), an immigrant sponsorship program (HB469), and employee verification and employer sanctions (HB116).

Legislators also tightened the requirements for driving privilege cards that many undocumented immigrants obtain.

The Legislature's own attorneys, though, have deemed the guest worker and immigrants sponsorship programs unconstitutional. The state would need a waiver from the federal government to legally put them into practice. Nonetheless, the programs are to go into effect no later than July 2013 regardless of federal approval.

Gov. Gary Herbert is under pressure from all sides to veto the legislation. He said he has concerns about some areas but would not talk specifics or reveal his leanings.

"At the end of the day, it would probably be unwise for me think we're going to get a perfect bill or group of bills out of this discussion. So, I'm going to be looking for those imperfections and then see what can be done about them," he said.

Herbert did not rule out addressing the issue in special legislative session this summer.

A prominent immigration attorney said that while GOP-dominated Utah showed moxie in passing legislation that's "magnanimous in nature," it is unlawful.

"It does contain some echoes of Arizona law," said Michael Wildes, a former federal prosecutor who practices in New York City. "I think eventually the federal government will file a lawsuit against the state of Utah as it did in Arizona."

Furthermore, he said he expects President Barack Obama to speak out against what the state did. If the president sides with Utah, he said, he would lose support for reform on the federal level.

"I don't see any way this will carry forward in the environment we're in," said Wildes, whose father, Leon Wildes, was John Lennon's immigration attorney in the 1970s.

Legislators say their action was spurred by Washington's inaction.

"Is the constitutional note valid? Yes. Is there willingness and readiness to fight back on this? Yes," said Rep. David Litvack, D-Salt Lake, who joined the majority Republicans in approving the bills.

HB116 sponsor Rep. Bill Wright, R-Holden, said guest workers are needed to fill jobs in areas such as agriculture that Americans won't do.

"Anything we do with this bill is better than what we do now, even if we only have five people sign up," said during a committee hearing. "Nothing in this bill sends us backwards."

State lawmakers have not called their plan a be-all, end-all to the thorny illegal immigration dilemma. They call it a start to dealing with Utah's estimated 110,000 undocumented immigrants.

But that start has left a sour taste in many mouths.

Latinos fear the enforcement component will target them as illegal whether they are or not.

"Now they have to look over their shoulder to make sure they're not being discriminated against," said Santiago Dirzo, of United for Social Justice.

Tea party activists, 9/12ers and some Republican delegates contend the guest worker program will flood the state with illegal immigrants and ultimately lead to amnesty. The guest worker program does not provide a pathway to citizenship.

"This ought to be called the 'Grapes of Wrath' bill," said Rep. David Clark, R-Santa Clara.

Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem, pushed enforcement and opposed the guest worker provision in HB116, which he says is full of holes.

"I think it's going to scare the heck out of people when they realize the ramifications of HB116," he said.

Sandstrom said he wouldn't be surprised to see lawmakers trying to repeal it this time next year.

Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, a driving force behind the legislation, said the bills were worded to comport with the Utah Compact and Gov. Gary Herbert's six guiding principles on illegal immigration reform.

A group of civic, business, religious and political leaders drew up the compact to foster civil discussion of the issue. It urges federal solutions and policies that don't unnecessarily separate families. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did not sign the document but endorsed it.

ACLU of Utah executive director Karen McCreary says the bills contradict both the compact and federal law.

"These bills have been pitched as a kinder, gentler version of Arizona's discriminatory law," she said. But, she said, the enforcement measure is no different in that it encourages racial profiling and could hinder local policy agency's ability to enforce other state laws.

Sandstrom spent 10 months working on the enforcement-only bill and ultimately had to tone it down to make it palatable. Still, "I think it shows Utah is serious about enforcing the rule of law," he said.

Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Burbank is more concerned about the rhetoric than the practical aspect of enforcing the law.

"This is one of those kinds of decisions that will change the face of law enforcement," he said.

"Law enforcement should not be immigration agents.That's not our role," he said.

Layton Police Chief Terry Keefe said the bill "looks like something we can live with."

Local government and police agencies found Sandstrom's initial proposal onerous and costly.

The final version in many ways reflects what police already do and will not add to their workload.

"In some ways we've ended where we started," said Keefe, president of the Utah Chiefs of Police Association.

Senate President Michael Waddoups described the bills as a "well-rounded" program that provides illegal immigrants the opportunity to work and allows police to be more aggressive in ridding the state of criminals.

"You'll find there will be fewer illegal immigrants," he said adding those committing crimes "will be worried enough that they'll go to other states or go home or be incarcerated."

Said Waddoups, "People on both sides don't like it. But I think people in the state of Utah will say we did a good job."

Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche