KUER Local News
Wed January 18, 2012
Coalitions Mobilize to Change Utah's Controversial Guest Worker Law
By Andrea Smardon
Salt Lake City, UT – Coalitions are mobilizing around the state to make changes to Utah's controversial guest worker law - or House Bill 116 -passed in the Legislature last year. Some want the bill repealed, some replaced, and some want to improve it so that it might better withstand legal challenges.
State Representative Chris Herrod is against House Bill 116 - a law that allows undocumented immigrants to work in Utah, but the Provo Republican insisted that he is not against immigrants themselves. "I've been called a racist, unChristian, uncompassionate, a foaming at the mouth zealot," said Herrod, "I believe in immigration, I just believe it needs to be fair to all individuals."
Speaking at an event organized by the Utah Coalition on Illegal Immigration, Herrod explained that HB116 favors the hiring of undocumented immigrants over legal Utah citizens. "I think it's terrible legislation, " said Herrod, "For me it's a fundamental fairness issue, and then it comes back to the Constitution. Is it Constitutional? I mean, the bill's sponsor even admitted that it was unconstitutional, but it was a way to get the federal government's attention."
Herrod is not alone in his views. Republican State Senator Stephen Urquhart from Washington County is sponsoring a bill to repeal the guest worker law, but Herrod is the only legislator so far who has come forward with a replacement bill. The proposed bill - which is still being finalized - would be a pilot program that would allow those who have overstayed their visas to regain legal status, without risk of deportation or being barred from re-entry back to the states. The bill would have to be approved by the US Congress and signed by the president.
After his presentation, Herrod explained that HB116 has divided the Republican party, and he's hoping this compromise might bring them back together. "I've heard a number of legislators say they want to bridge the divide, and I think there are some that want to simply repeal it, but here's a good faith effort of something that I think makes much better model legislation for the nation," said Herrod.
Paul Mero is the President of Sutherland Institute - a conservative policy think tank. He predicts that legislators will not support a replacement bill, and that most of HB-116 will remain intact. "You're going to have a few representatives, a few of them wanting to repeal 116, but I think serious legislators, who already have gone through this struggle, this legislative battle last session aren't going to be willing to relive any of that," said Mero, "A lot of blood sweat and tears went into 116, and the whole concept of prudently addressing undocumented immigrants who already live here."
The Sutherland Institute and the Salt Lake Chamber guided much of the policy in the original guest worker law. Mero said the law could be improved so that it is less vulnerable to lawsuits; that's where he and other policy advisors are focusing their efforts. "I think what we're going to see in the 2012 legislative session are ideas, proposals that tend to perfect 116, that are technical, legal, that allow us to work with the federal government better, so they don't feel like they're going to be compelled to sue the state of Utah," said Mero.
The state is currently defending a lawsuit by the federal government over State Bill 497 - a law that allows for local police to enforce immigration violations. Mero says the Sutherland Institute is removing all similar enforcement-only language in HB 116. He says that piece of the law was unconstitutional, and should be removed. But beyond that, he says it's Utah's constitutional right to protect the civil rights of citizens, public safety, and economic prosperity.
"If the federal government does sue on that approach, let them sue, because we think it addresses an important issue," said Mero. "The federal failure to control immigration has led to undocumented immigrants - over 100,000 of them at least - living in Utah."
Mero says he has been consulting with numerous legislators, but he says it remains to be seen who will support Sutherland Institute's policy recommendations on House Bill 116.