Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Utah bucks a trend by letting undocumented immigrants work

Construction signs, August 2008
Construction signs, August 2008
Photo by jphilipg/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Last Friday, Utah became the first state to pass its own guest-worker bill, and one of two states lately to weigh anti-illegal immigration legislation that makes a work-related exception for undocumented immigrants.

Late last month, a Texas state representative otherwise known for her tough-on-illegal immigration attitude introduced a bill that would punish employers who hire unauthorized workers with jail time and up to $10,000 in fines, but makes an exception for those who hire maids, gardeners and other domestic workers. And the bill that cleared both legislative houses Friday night in Utah - part of a broader immigration package that includes tougher enforcement - would provide a two-year work permit to undocumented immigrants who could prove they had been living and working in Utah. In order to qualify, they would have to pass a criminal background check and pay fines.

What gives? Here's what Frank Sharry, executive director of the Washington, D.C. immigrant advocacy group America’s Voice, said to the New York Times:

“Utah is the anti-Arizona...Instead of indulging the fantasy that you can drive thousands of people out of your state, it combines enforcement with the idea that those who are settled should be brought into the system.”

The Times story also quoted Utah state Rep. Bill Wright:
“I’m a very conservative Republican; I’m not moderate at all,” he said. But, he said, “we literally do not have the ability to remove those who are here illegally.”

An opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal had this take:
Apparently, there are still some conservative lawmakers left who, in the tradition of Ronald Reagan, don't abandon free-market principles in favor of reactionary populism when the topic turns to immigration.

There's the question of economic reality, and there's also the question of image, at least in Utah. Before Friday's vote took place, an SB 1070-style enforcement bill that Utah Rep. Stephen Sandstrom had been pushing underwent substantial doctoring. Local authorities may still check the immigration status of people detained on suspicion of a felony or serious misdemeanor, but language in that bill - which passed along with the guest worker bill - that could be seen as encouraging racial profiling was softened. From the Salt Lake Tribune:
“What Utah is doing is very pragmatic,” Sandstrom said. “Senator Pearce is a friend of mine, but he’s taken things a bit farther than me. I want to stay away from things that appear mean-spirited.”

So, in order to get buy-in from skeptics — including Senate leaders — Sandstrom’s original enforcement bill underwent major renovation in recent days.

Scratched were the words “reasonable suspicion” to describe the standard for local police to check the legal status of people detained. Also struck was the so-called “papers please” portion that would have required people to carry ID on them at all times. The change allows residents simply to tell officers their name or address to verify who they are. And the revised version makes it an option — not a requirement — for law enforcement to the check legal status of a person accused of a class B or C misdemeanor or traffic infraction.

Utah's governor is expected to sign the package. The legislation approved gives the governor until 2013 to negotiate with the federal government for a waiver for the guest worker program. Under federal law, it remains illegal for employers to knowingly hire unauthorized workers. But if no waiver is obtained by then, the guest worker program would still go into effect.

Multi-American readers, your opinions are welcome.