New Bills Don’t Make Utah the ‘Anti-Arizona’ on Immigration

Activists in the state argue a new guest worker program won't be enough to mitigate harsher enforcement.

By Julianne Hing Mar 07, 2011

Last Friday, the Utah Legislature passed two immigration bills that the state hopes will help distance it from proudly anti-immigrant states like Arizona.

The bills allow for the creation of a state guest-worker program that the governor has until 2013 to obtain a waiver from the federal government to enact. It’ll go into effect even if no waiver is granted. The guest-worker program would allow undocumented immigrants a two-year visa to live with their families and work in the state if they pass a criminal background check and pay anywhere from $1,000 to $2,500 in fines.

Utah passed Rep. Stephen Sandstrom’s "enforcement only" bill that allows law enforcement officers to question people arrested for a felony or serious misdemeanor about their immigration status. Sandstrom removed the infamous "reasonable suspicion" clause borrowed from Arizona’s SB 1070, which allows law enforcement officers to detain and question anyone they have "reasonable suspicion" to believe is undocumented. Critics said the clause legalized, and even mandated, racial profiling of Arizona residents. Arizona is defending this central portion of SB 1070 in federal court against the U.S. government, which argues that it is unconstitutional.

Utah also passed an omnibus bill that combined several House proposals, including a bill that mandates Utah businesses with more than 15 employees use the famously error-ridden federal immigration database E-Verify to clear all employees. It also allows for more police enforcement. The newly passed bill also would make it a felony for undocumented immigrants to be caught using public benefits. Debate continues around a provision that would grant in-state tuition for all state college and university students who’ve lived in Utah for at least three years, regardless of immigration status.

Mainstream media have hailed Utah’s move as a "a sharp break with the hard-line trend in state immigration legislation that has been led by Arizona," and as proof that it’s possible not to "abandon free-market principles in favor of reactionary populism." J. Smith, a columnist at the Atlanta Post, praised Utah’s "sane" immigration bill.

"Utah is the anti-Arizona," Frank Sharry, executive director of the pro-immigration reform group America’s Voice said in a statement. "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."

Immigrant rights activists in Utah are not as enthusiastic about the bills. Activists responded with a protest on Saturday, the Deseret News reported. They argue that the benefits of the guest worker program will not be enough to mitigate the harm of harsh enforcement measures that will almost certainly lead to more exploitation and deportation.

They are asking Gov. Gary Herbert to veto the bill that many expect he will sign.

"Utah has done some ugly things to us," immigrant rights activist Archie Archuleta said, Deseret News reported. "That’s the only thing left to us."