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UT lawmakers advance guest worker program

Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development

By Jenny Brundin

Salt Lake City, UT – Utah lawmakers took up another immigration bill yesterday, one the sponsor says, is meant to deal with the reality of an estimated 110,000 undocumented workers who are integrated into Utah's economy. It's a guest worker program, one he says would cost the state about $2 million to start, but could generate more than $11 million through payroll taxes from workers in the program. KUER's Jenny Brundin reports.

Representative Bill Wright wants to bring Utahns face to face with reality. So he asked this direct question of his colleagues as he presented his House Bill 116.

WRIGHT: How many of you come here at 4:30 in the morning? Come here at 4:30 in the morning and see whose here emptying your garbage. See who is sweeping the floor. I'll guarantee you they don't have the same face color I do.

He says the reality is, his own kids, nor his neighbors, aren't willing to pick the fruit in our fields, wash the dishes in restaurants or clean our buildings late into the night. It's a far cry from the days of his youth, says Wright, when everyone he knew picked fruit after school.

WRIGHT: Go look who is in the fields, go look who is doing the work, it's not our kids.

It's largely Mexican undocumented immigrants. And Utah's farmers and business owners want a way to hire them legally. Wright has thrown himself into the roiling immigration debate by crafting a guest worker program. His bill sets up two kinds of permits - a guest worker permit and an immediate family permit. That's to let a spouse and children under 21 accompany the guest worker. The permit lasts two years, and it's administered by the Department of Workforce Services. Workers would pay a $750 dollar fee if they didn't have health insurance. The Chamber of Commerce has thrown its support behind the bill. The Chamber's Robin Riggs:

RIGGS: I got a call from a very conservative organization a few weeks ago and they said wow, if a red state like Utah can pass something like this, what are the possibilities?.... the possibilities of actually solving a problem at a state level.

Workers would be fingerprinted and have a background check. If someone's turns out to be a criminal, that's when ICE, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement is called in. But that wasn't good enough for some people who testified. Dan Deuel is with the Weber County 9-12 Project.

DEUL: It would be one thing if they had a passport or some other way to verify their identity but when we're just talking a finger print, they could be over here for much more insidious purposes and suddenly now they have a new form of identification.

The proposal has a long road ahead. Namely, it needs a federal waiver, that is, permission from the feds to try the experiment. But in what's becoming the norm on Utah's Capitol Hill, with or without federal permission, Sponsor Wright says his bill would go into effect in 2013.

WRIGHT: We do not have a solution. Somebody has to come up with a solution. We can bury our head in the sand and I don't see the feds doing it, so we've taken it upon ourselves, Utah.

Hence, a note on the bill stating that there's a high probability that a court would find portions of it unconstitutional. Immigration attorney, Mark Alvarez:

ALVAREZ: The constitution is important even when inconvenient. It should not be put aside in the interest of a short-term state fix. There is no Utah solution on immigration that would be practical effective and constitutional.

The ACLU of Utah opposes the bill for similar reasons. In this exchange with Representative Keith Grover, Esperanza Granados of the ACLU said regardless of legal status, the U.S. constitution protects everyone in the country against compelled self-incrimination. The bill requires undocumented immigrants to self-report.

GRANADOS: We acknowledge the fact that it would provide a means for individuals to work in this country. However, it doesn't guarantee that they will not be deported. If a person were to have any encounter with ICE, for any reason at all, they could still end up being deported even if they are in the state of Utah.

GROVER: Is that not the status quo now?

GRANADOS: That's correct, so this creates a false sense of hope for individuals who would be applying for this permit.

But ranchers and farmers approached the microphone one by one, saying they've tried every means possible to hire workers. Fruit farmer Ray Rolly tries to get workers legally through H-2A seasonal permits, but one year, workers couldn't get here fast enough so his apples didn't get harvested. So Rolly tries finding workers locally.

ROLLY: We put it [ad] in three or four newspapers. All the calls, almost to a T are, well I just had to call to keep my unemployment benefits, and I really don't want the job.

Fourth generation dairy farmer and former Utah lawmaker David Ure says the bill isn't perfect, but it's needed to deal with a significant societal shift away from what many consider menial labor.

URE: There's not two kids in South Summit High School that don't know what end of a pitchfork to lean on. And I'm telling you seriously, I'm not telling you to make jokes. That's the way it is. You cannot hire someone to come work on the farms anymore.

During committee discussion, Representative David Litvack said his biggest heartburn with the bill is that it goes into effect without federal permission. But he said, it will bring people out of the shadows.

LITVACK: This is the first time I've seen in my ten years as a legislator, a proposal to address immigration that recognizes the human being behind the immigration issue, first time.

Litvack says he'll support the bill because he wants to show Congress that comprehensive immigration reform can be done. Bill sponsor Bill Wright stated it more bluntly. He said there's evidence on a number of issues that there won't be movement federally, unless states attack. The majority agreed with that sentiment and House Bill 116 advanced on a 6 to 1 vote. It now goes the the House floor for a debate.

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