The bad and the ugly in Utah’s immigration alternative

Last week, Utah’s Republican Gov. Gary Herbert signed a package of immigration bills that has drawn criticism from both sides of the issue. However, given the heated debate, some say the new rules are a step forward.

The four laws, approved by Utah’s GOP-controlled legislature earlier this month, present a “middle course” on immigration, both good and bad, critics say. But it’s a very conservative approach, they note.

One of the bills is an enforcement law that requires police to check the immigration status of anyone stopped for a felony or serious misdemeanor. Legal challenges are expected from immigrant rights activists on this bill, which is very similar, yet slightly milder, than Arizona’s notorious SB 1070.

But another bill creates a guest worker program, which would issue a two-year work permit to undocumented immigrants who could prove that they had been living and working in Utah. Those that qualify would have to pass a criminal background check and pay a fine of up to $2,500. Opponents on the far right call it amnesty.

It’s unclear whether the guest worker bill gives immigrants a path toward citizenship.

The other bills allow businesses to recruit Mexican workers and American citizens to sponsor foreign residents who want to work or study in Utah.

Gov. Herbert said the package “is not perfect,” but the primary goal is to force a federal solution and engage Congress to act.

The guest worker bill requires a federal waiver and allows Utah until 2013 to negotiate with federal immigration authorities. Under federal law, it is a violation for an employer to knowingly hire an undocumented immigrant. If no waiver is obtained by then, the guest worker program will go into effect anyway.

Utah State Rep. Bill Wright, a Republican, helped write the guest worker bill and said it’s unrealistic to think that 11 million people can be deported.

“A lot of these people are intertwined in our society,” he told NPR. “They have financial obligations: They have bank notes, they’ve bought houses, they contribute, they have jobs.”

Jim Judd, president of Utah’s AFL-CIO, which represents 30,000 active and retired union workers in the state, said there is good and bad in all of the bills. But each could expect constitutional challenges from both sides, he said.

The guest worker bill is problematic, says Judd, because it’s similar to the current H2B-Visa program, which takes advantage of undocumented workers.

“These workers already have to pay a significant amount of money to enter the program and can only work for one employer. And their living conditions are poor,” said Judd. They get paid the minimum wage or lower and really the whole system is bad for all workers because it brings down wages in the labor market, he said. “It’s a legal path for exploitation that creates problems for the labor movement moving forward.”

Judd notes, “We need fairness where guest worker programs don’t manipulate the process and doesn’t oppress workers, otherwise it’s just a legal form of indentured servitude.” Several thousand apply each year to the current H2B-Visa program, said Judd.

The labor movement wants to make certain that immigration reform treats all workers fairly and that immigrants are not used or intimidated by their employers, he adds.

However the bills overall are better than what was proposed in Arizona, Judd continues. “We did not want to see the extreme profiling of any worker based on their skin color or national origin.”

Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a national immigrant advocacy group, told the New York Times, “Utah is the anti-Arizona.” He added, “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.” Sharry notes the Utah legislation is a very rough draft of what we call comprehensive immigration reform at the national level.

Some say Utah is making a clean break with the hard-line trend in state immigration bills led by Arizona, which passed a strict enforcement policy in SB 1070 last year. Central provisions of Arizona’s law were suspended by federal courts pending a lawsuit by the Obama administration. However it appears the tide is turning there as well; its State Senate rejected five anti-immigrant bills last week.

Meanwhile, President Obama is expected to make another push for immigration reform in the coming months. In a recent interview on CNN En Espanñol he said:

I want to be absolutely clear to the American people, we are a nation of immigrants. There is a legitimate role to make sure we have secure borders, that we have a strong process of legal immigration, that we’re making sure that businesses aren’t exploiting undocumented workers. But ultimately, we’re going to have to have a comprehensive approach that also includes taking those who are already in the U.S., living in the shadows, and giving them a pathway towards legal status. And we’re going to continue to fight for that.

Photo: May Day march for immigrant rights in Chicago. Pepe Lozano/PW.


Pepe Lozano
Pepe Lozano

Chicagoan Pepe Lozano was a staff writer with the People's World through 2014. He comes from an activist family and has lived on the city's southwest side in a predominantly Mexican-American community his whole life. Lozano now works as a union organizer.