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SALT LAKE CITY -- Sen. Orrin Hatch has introduced an immigration bill that he says would be a precursor to a comprehensive bill. He says it aims to enforce the laws we already have in place.
"We're never going to get there if we don't enforce the laws that are already on the books," Hatch said Thursday.
His solution: the Strengthening Our Commitment to Legal Immigration and America's Security Act.
Enforcement of immigration laws
The bill would require participation from local law enforcement in working with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) through a cross-deputizing program. Those ICE initiatives will work to identify and deport serious criminal illegal immigrants.
This is a step in the right direction to try and do something to secure our borders and, at the same time, strengthen our laws so we can handle these matters.
–Sen. Orrin Hatch
Some Utah lawmakers, however, say that won't work.
"There's some problems, I believe, in terms of mandating that local law enforcement agencies engage in immigration enforcement," said Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City.
A key provision in the bill would "require eligible states, counties and cities to make use of the Secure Communities and the 287(g) programs." Those ICE initiatives will work to identify and deport serious criminal illegal immigrants.
"This is a step in the right direction to try and do something to secure our borders and, at the same time, strengthen our laws so we can handle these matters," Hatch said.
Some critics say the act doesn't address the big picture.
Thomas Saenz is the president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF). While he agrees immigration reform should be left up to the federal government, he isn't sure Hatch's proposal hits the right points.
"I'm concerned that it appears to be an enforcement-only bill, and that's not what we need to have," Saenz said.
Still, he hopes this is a sign that Congress is beginning to work on a plan.
"There is apparently a courage deficit in D.C., where folks are afraid to act on something that's so important to our country," Saenz said.
Dealing with other aspects of illegal immigration
With his bill, Hatch also wants to tackle identity theft, cut out parts of the visa system and keep track of welfare benefits going to illegal immigrant households.
To crack down on identity theft, Hatch proposes that the IRS notify employers when an employee's Social Security number is found to be inaccurate. If the problem isn't corrected, the IRS would have to notify the Social Security card holder. Any criminal found stealing someone's identity could be prosecuted for aggravated identity fraud.
He's hitting the issues that we've been concerned about: We're talking about costs going out to welfare. We're talking about the border. We're talking about allowing law enforcement to do their jobs.
–Rep. Paul Ray
A number of visa issues would also be changed in Hatch's bill, starting with precluding any applicants who are members of a known gang from entering the United States. His bill would also eliminate the Diversity Visa Program unless Congress can find ways to combat fraud. The Department of Homeland Security would also create a mandatory exit process for visitors to the United States.
The bill would also limit states' ability to get funds "to cover children and pregnant women who are not U.S. citizens."
"Look, it's costing this country an arm and a leg," Hatch said. "What it does, it says ‘look, we're not going to give welfare to people who are breaking our laws.'"
"He's hitting the issues that we've been concerned about," said Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield. "We're talking about costs going out to welfare. We're talking about the border. We're talking about allowing law enforcement to do their jobs."
Regardless of what side of the aisle they're on, Utah legislators believe their cries for federal action are finally getting heard.
"If we back off, the feds will back off. We have to keep pushing until it gets done federally," Ray said.
"I'm glad that the senator is attempting to put something forward," Chavez-Houck said. "We're addressing it from a federal perspective, and that's where it needs to be."
The bill would also prevent President Barack Obama from granting legal status on a mass basis.
"To just do it for millions of people on a mass basis, which is what the administration has been exploring -- that would be a travesty and it would be, I think, violative of our laws," Hatch said.
The senator says back-door amnesty isn't fair for those people who are waiting in line for citizenship.