Lawsuit: The Utah Compact Is Unconstitutional, Just Like SB 1070

It may sound nicer than Arizona, but don't be fooled by the pretty language.

By Julianne Hing May 04, 2011

On Tuesday, immigrant and civil rights groups filed a lawsuit against the state of Utah over its controversial, and admittedly confusing, new immigration enforcement law, HB 497.

When Utah’s immigration package became law in March, it was initially difficult to know what to make of it. The bill combined a harsh enforcement scheme with a novel guest worker program the state plans to attempt to set up with Mexico. The state also intends to ask for a so-called "waiver" from the federal government to run its own guest worker program. Utah was hailed by groups as a bellwether for a humane approach to state immigration bills.

Utah’s softer rhetorical stance–the bill affirms the importance of immigrant communities and condemns racial profiling–gave state lawmakers the political cover to shove in SB 1070-like enforcement provisions to a suite of bills, and allowed Utah to escape much of the heat that Arizona caught (and is still trying to manage) after it passed SB 1070 last year. But on Tuesday, they decided to call Utah out.

"This law has been wildly misrepresented as a kinder, gentler version of Arizona’s discriminating law," said Karen McCreary, executive director of the ACLU of Utah. "But the truth is, this ill-conceived law is just as harsh, turning Utah into a police state where everyone is required to carry their papers to prove they are lawfully present."

A set of seven organizations and six individual plaintiffs led by the National Immigration Law Center and the ACLU filed a lawsuit against Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and the attorney general, Mark Shurtleff, charging that HB 497, the enforcement side of the Utah Compact, reeks of SB 1070, and violates the Constitution. 

HB 497, which is set to go into effect on May 10, requires police officers to ask for one of four state-approved forms of identification during the course of a lawful stop for a felony or a class A misdemeanor. Police officers who stop a person for a class B or C misdemeanor will also be required to verify a person’s immigration status if a citation is issued, according to Andre Segura, with the ACLU Immigrant Rights Project. The law mandates that people be held in police custody while police determine their immigration status.

HB 497 also empowers police to discredit, and investigate, a person if they choose not to believe that the identification they’ve been presented with it legitimate.

"By turning law enforcement officers into immigration agents, and requiring them to demand papers demonstrating immigration status, HB 497 promotes racial profiling, and ensures that immigrant communities will no longer feel safe going to the authorities as victims of or witnesses to crime," said Linton Joaquin, general counsel of the National Immigration Law Center. "This undermines the public safety of everyone."

"HB 497 puts the good police officers of Utah in an impossible situation, and asks them to determine a person’s immigration status, when that is not something that can be observed in the field," said Cecilia Wang, the managing attorney of the ACLU’s Immigrant Rights’ Project. "[Officers] will be left to work on stereotypes that certain people may be unauthorized based on how they speak or the color of their skin."

The groups have argued that HB 497 and SB 1070 violate the Constitution similarly. According to Joaquin, the lawsuit charges that Utah’s HB 497 violates the preemption clause of the Constitution, which says that immigration enforcement is "the exclusive province of the federal government."

Elsewhere, the law assures churches that they can continue to provide sanctuary to undocumented immigrants. HB 497 also reinforces that all Utah residents, regardless of immigration status, have basic civil rights. Critics say they won’t be fooled.

"Federal immigration law leaves no room for this kind of intrusive state legislation," Joaquin said.

And now Utah, like Arizona, is being taken to court for it.