State Provides for a Comprehensive Immigration Bill

Author: Noel Marie LaPlume
Date: March 31, 2011

It is no secret that ever since Arizona passed its tough immigration law penalizing undocumented workers, many states have used that as a queue to consider similar laws of their own- Florida being among the ones to do so. But so far, all those states have been stuck in the deliberating phase, with the bills failing to reflect their individual immigration policy needs since they have generally just been carbon copies of their Arizona counterpart. However, one state has chosen a slightly different approach that it hopes will become an alternative model for dealing with the illegal immigration problem. Governor Gary R. Herbert of the state of Utah has signed a dual-action package of immigration bills that encompasses an enforcement law- albeit milder than Arizona’s, still opposed by liberal immigration advocates- but the remarkable part about it is that it also includes a guest-worker provision that in effect is a program to make those who are already living in the state and undocumented, legal. The guest-worker permit law says that if you pay a fine, have no criminal record and are working, you can stay in the state.

“We have to understand, Utah is one of the most conservative states in the country,” says Alfonso Aguilar, who runs the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles. “The governor’s Republican; the House and Senate are dominated by Republicans. And they saw what happened in Arizona. They passed an enforcement-only law [that] has driven away investment, business, workers that the Arizona economy needs.” In Utah, they wanted to deal with enforcement but balance it with measures that are more business-friendly, and that’s exactly what they did. Not only does Utah demonstrate that Republicans can find a middle course to this problem, they have acknowledged the problem and nailed it on the head. State Rep. Bill Wright, who wrote part of the law, says he was just trying to deal with the reality that there are 11 million illegal immigrants living in the United States, and that they are never going to be deported because it is both inconvenient and inhumane. “I’m of the opinion that we really don’t have the ability as a society to remove that large a portion of a segment from our society- [because of] either the cost, or just the damage it would do. A lot of these people are intertwined in our society…they’ve bought houses; they have jobs; they contribute,” he says.

The recognition that implementing a law styled after Arizona’s would greatly hinder the state’s economy and work force is one that shows both clarity of mind and resolve on the part of its lawmakers. It also demonstrates a great deal of restraint considering the Republican base seems unequivocally opposed to- and almost allergic to- policies that legalize undocumented immigrants. “What you have is, in a ruby-red state, some legislators and the governor; and the Mormon Church…leading the way towards a more enlightened approach towards immigration,” says Frank Sharry, founder of the immigration advocacy group America’s Voice. This law mirrors the complexity of the national debate in that it includes both an enforcement provision plus providing an opening to legal status for those who are otherwise law-abiding citizens. The Utah legislation could in fact be seen as a very rough draft of what we call comprehensive immigration reform, and it could be a model to be used in shaping the one overdue at the national level. “We need a federal solution,” he says. “We don’t want to see a patchwork of state legislation on immigration. Hopefully, this will pressure the government, the federal government, to do something.”

The state’s lawmakers are right in that the country needs its federal government to do something about this escalating issue- and to do it very soon. Up to this point, our Congress members have proven that they lack any ideas of how to properly tackle this multi-dimensional issue, and the political environment in Washington has provided hardly any room for brainstorming. If the federal government continues to be idle, and to carry out its ongoing enforcement-only policy, the result will be a perpetuation of what we have had the last thirty-five years- and that is just not good enough. The last Congressional attempt at immigration reform came with the Dream Act (providing a legal status for the country’s undocumented youth by way of a college education or military service), which failed in the Senate last December. And even though the debate in Washington seems to be hopelessly polarized, there are Republicans who fear they cannot win the next presidential election if their party continues to be perceived as anti-Hispanic.

There is also the belief that President Obama would not want to face the Hispanic constituency in 2012 without first trying to fulfill the promise he made during the presidential campaign of passing comprehensive immigration reform. The fact of the matter is that Utah now needs the Obama administration to give it a waiver so it can legally employ illegal immigrants and enact the guest worker provision of its law, and that should in itself provide for a line of dialogue between the two parties; all Obama has to do is be receptive to ideas and be willing to take a firm step forward on the issue. If the president were to use this law as a blueprint of what the national comprehensive immigration reform law should be, he would have a new-found opportunity to win over the approval of the Hispanic voters, along with a chance to make good on his promise.

The reality is that for him not to figure out how to engage with lawmakers in Utah, and try to make it work, would be a big mistake. Besides, the White House had been planning to make another push for immigration legislation in the next couple of months. It is our hope that Utah’s new guest-worker law could force the president to speed up his timetable. We are also hopeful that lawmakers in Florida may be taking down notes on how to draft a proper immigration bill that will actually meet the state’s needs while averting an economic standstill by ensuring the health of its large immigration workforce. After all, what the states and our country need most is a tailor-made comprehensive immigration law that suits well and sizes up to the needs and expectations of the majority, not the few.