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Utah's controversial guest worker program could face repeal

Utah's controversial guest worker program could face repeal

(Jeffrey D. Allred/Deseret News/File)

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SALT LAKE CITY — State lawmakers five years ago passed a package of controversial immigration reform bills touted as the Utah Solution.

But now they will consider abandoning the guest worker program it created because the state has not obtained the federal permission needed to put in place.

Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, who helped broker the legislation and will now sponsor a bill to repeal it, said the state knew going in that a federal waiver was a long shot.

"In this case, we were forging some new territory," he said.

Lawmakers in 2011 delayed the implementation date three years and extended it again to 2017. An attempt to repeal it in 2012 failed. None of the bill's provisions were ever put into practice.

Bramble said there isn't an appetite to keep it on the books.

HB116 — the bill number for the 2011 legislation — was cheered and jeered when the Legislature debated it five years ago. The ACLU of Utah and some in the Latino community called it unconstitutional and exploitive. Proponents of the bill said it would provide a much-needed workforce for farmers and ranchers. Tea party activists painted it as amnesty.

Community activist and attorney Mark Alvarez said the program was never doable anyway. He said the federal government would never let Utah have access to a source of workers that wasn't available to the rest of the country.

"I guess in repealing it, though nobody's going to admit it, it's an admission that they were wrong in the first place," Alvarez said.

Bramble said legislators at the time weren't looking for a legal showdown with the federal government but were trying to find practical solutions at the state level. The law enforcement piece of the immigration package became tied up in the federal courts.

The legislation was to provide a means for undocumented immigrants to legally work in the state.

It created two types of permits — a guest worker permit and an immediate family permit. The latter was to allow the undocumented worker's spouse and unmarried children under age 21 to be in the country lawfully.

Applicants were to undergo a criminal background check and be fingerprinted. Those found with criminal records were to be referred to law enforcement and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The Utah Department of Workforce Services was to administer the program.

The bill also called for the Utah State Tax Commission to create a parallel tax system for the guest worker program because undocumented immigrants can't legally pay income tax. But the state hasn't provided the $1 million the commission would incur in setting it up.

The commission would be obligated to develop the system if the bill isn't repealed.

Bramble said the immigration issues the legislation attempted to address haven't gone away.

"None of those problems have evaporated. They're still here," he said, blaming the Obama administration and Congress for failing to act on what is a federal issue.

Bramble said he talked to high-ranking federal officials about the waiver several times but doesn't know how vigilantly other state officials pursued it. He said he's not aware that members of Utah's congressional delegation ever advanced any legislation that would have secured the waiver.

Former Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who was out front on immigration issues, said he talked to officials in the Department of Justice, Homeland Security and ICE about the waiver. The push ended, he said, when the effort shifted to getting Congress to act on illegal immigration.

Shurtleff said the guest worker program is a good idea and that he would argue to keep it in place.

"I think it's too bad," he said of lawmakers looking to repeal it. Email: Twitter: dennisromboy

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