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SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Luz Robles' approach to Utah's immigration problem is the first of its kind in the United States and, if passed, immigration policy experts say, it could become a model for the nation.
Most state immigration solutions up to this point have focused on law enforcement, said Ann Morse, program director for the National Conference of State Legislators' Immigrant Policy Project. Those that address employment, as Robles' bill does, have focused on employer sanctions or the implementation of the federal E-Verify system. Robles' bill is more comprehensive.
"It's pretty unique," Morse said. The only bill that's remotely similar, she said, is Colorado's HB 1325, which sought to expedite recruitment and approval of seasonal workers — and that's not really similar at all.
Colorado's bill, like several others that have been proposed in recent months, was a guest worker program, meaning that it dealt with immigrants at the point of entry into the country. Robles' bill creates a system that would give illegal immigrants already living in the state a legal avenue to work.
"This bill deals with reality," said Robles, D-Salt Lake City. "These people are here, living amongst us. They are already working. This bill just brings those people to the surface and lets us know who they are and where they live."
Robles' bill also addresses several other concerns associated with illegal immigration: criminal activity, integration and taxes.
In order to get a permit under Robles' plan, immigrants would have to pass a background check. Because immigrants would be required to carry their permit on them at all times, Robles' believes the bill would help law enforcement weed out criminals. The bill also encourages immigrants to integrate into the community by requiring them to learn English and take civics classes. Immigrant tax contributions would be tracked.
"Coming from a state, it's the most comprehensive approach to immigration reform I've seen," said Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of America's Voice, a Washington D.C. based advocacy group.
The bill is also unique because it is bipartisan, Tramonte said. Robles, who is a Democrat, developed the bill in conjunction with The Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank. Partisan politics are largely responsible for the federal government's failure to pass immigration reform.
"If a bipartisan piece of immigration legislation can work its way through in Utah, it shows Congress it can be done," Morse said.
Robles' bill could also be a blueprint for other states. After Arizona passed a heavy-handed law making it a state crime to be in the country illegally, copycat bills sprang up all over the United States. Now 25 states, including Utah, have made similar proposals. Robles' bill, could have a similar impact, said Wendy Sefsaf, communications director for the American Immigration Council, a Washington D.C. based think tank.
"I think Utah is setting an example for the rest of the country by being solution oriented in a way that other states aren't," she said. "The legislation coupled with the Utah Compact has really made Utah stand out."
Sefsaf said she regularly refers inquiring legislators to Utah. Robles said she's already fielded phone calls from curious legislators in Texas, Ohio, Kansas and Florida — among others.
"If Utah pulls this off, the rest of the country will be watching with interest," Sefsaf said. "There are a lot of states out there looking for an alternative to what Arizona has done."
But not everybody loves Robles' approach.
Like Arizona's law, which has been challenged by the Supreme Court, Robles' bill treads deep into federal territory, Morse said. Under federal law, illegal immigrants are not allowed to work. Robles bill would require a waiver and a great deal of compromise from the federal government. How likely is that to work?
"I have no idea," Morse said. "This is completely new ground."
John Feere, legal policy analyst for the Center for Immigration Studies, said the bill is "unlikely to go anywhere." He called the legislation an "attempt at state-level amnesty" that would make Utah a magnet for illegal immigration. Comprehensive immigration reform, as Robles has attempted it, is not within Utah's power, he said.
"States have a role to play in immigration policy, but that role is limited to assisting the federal government in carrying out its enforcement," Feere said. "Creating an incentive for illegal immigration, as this bill would do, seems to go against federal priorities and is likely unconstitutional."