Can Utah compromise on immigration?
“The Utah solution,” a compromise between immigration enforcement and a guest worker program, is under attack from all sides. As I’ve written about before, an interesting mix of business leaders, churches, and immigrant advocates—yes, even Republican lawmakers—have sought a less punitive approach to dealing with undocumented immigrants in Utah than copying Arizona’s SB1070, as many other states have done.
Undocumented workers are essential to Utah’s beet fields and other parts of its agribusiness. So they came up with a state guest worker program that would permit the undocumented to continue to work. This came to be known as the “Utah Compact.” The legislature just passed a package of bills that merged the two approaches – guest worker program and police enforcement. This “Utah solution”, however, doesn’t seem to please many in the state. The Tea Party bemoaned the guest worker program as “amnesty” while immigrant rights activists dismissed the package as “amnesty with exploitation.” Both sides have asked the governor not to sign the bills.
One bill would establish a guest worker program under a Department of Public Safety. Those eligible are undocumented worker and their family members in the state before May 2011. They would have to pay fines up to $2,500. Employer of more than 15 workers must check the immigration status of their workers through the federal E-verify system. Those who qualify would be issued a permit. By a separate bill an agreement between the state and the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon will supply guest workers in the future.
The enforcement law is somewhat softer than Arizona’s SB 1070. Police must examine the immigration status of all arrest for felonies or grade-A misdemeanors; on lesser misdemeanors they can use their discretion. The guest worker program still needs a waiver from the federal government to go into effect. The same argument holds for the “Utah solution” as for SB 1070 – immigration is the federal government’s turf.
Elsewhere, after some initial activity, the steam seems to be coming out of the rush for SB 1070 look-a-likes. As many as twenty states are looking at bills. Utah is the only state where anything is close to a governor’s desk. Some are not too far behind, namely Georgia and Indiana. But many state legislatures are having second thoughts.
Tea Party members are more concerned these days in whittling down the size of government so legislators are turning to grappling with fiscal deficits and cutting costs. Even in Arizona more punitive measures have been put on hold. The great protagonist of SB 1970, State Senator Russell Pearce publicly defers to the urgency of the state's fiscal crisis, but support is waning as much because of a backlash over last spring's bitter debate. While the little SB 1070s or birthright denials seem to have stalled, still it won’t take much to stir the hornet’s nest again.