By Kristian Ekenes and Elizabeth Hollingshaus
On a late Friday night last winter, the Utah Legislature passed House Bill 116, which created a guest worker program that provided work permits to undocumented individuals living in Utah. Gov. Gary Herbert signed the bill into law amid many voices proclaiming it a solution to how to deal with the more than 100,000 illegal immigrants living in Utah.
Many Utah Republican delegates and others have since decried it for its flaws.
Nearly one year later, during the 2012 General Session of Utah Congress, Rep. Chris Herrod introduced House Bill 300, which would repeal HB 116.
House Bill 300 is not the only bill looking to repeal 116. Sen. Stephen Urquhart sponsored bill 157 and added to the heated debate. SB 157 would have repealed the Utah Immigration Accountability and Enforcement Act, associated with HB 116. The Senate unanimously voted to kill the bill on Feb. 16.
As of Feb. 13, the fate of HB 300 is still up in the air. It has yet to be heard by a committee.
“It’s a fundamental fairness issue. [HB116] discriminates against those that have done things right,” Herrod said, citing how some business owners can’t compete with others in their market because their competitors hire illegal labor, making them more profitable.
HB 116 is Utah’s version of a guest worker residency program, which allows an undocumented person to apply for a work permit after providing proof of health insurance coverage, passing a background check and paying a fee without the fear of being deported.
The bill requires Utah authorities to work with the federal government to obtain a waiver, which would grant the undocumented applicant the right to work. Police would also be required to check the legal status of suspects in criminal cases.
The Deseret News called HB 116 “a model for the nations.” The Salt Lake Tribune called for its repeal on grounds of unconstitutionality. However, “the Utah law can be seen as a template for federal immigration reform,” the Tribune said.
HB116 was the first of its kind in the U.S and was written with the intention to set a standard for immigration reform for the federal government.
Rep. Bill Wright, a co-sponsor of the bill, said HB116 provides an outline and direction in actually approaching the illegal immigrant situation.
“If we repeal it, it takes that vision away and we go back to where we were a year ago, which was the wrong path,” he said.
Herrod said HB116 should not have been passed because Utah doesn’t have the right to create new immigration laws.
“It’s unconstitutional,” he said. “The constitution clearly defines (in Article 1 Section 9) that the federal government has control over setting immigration laws.”
HB 300 amends HB 116 by adding more guidelines to background checks. Undocumented families who have overstayed their visas and haven’t broken laws can apply for a “Transition A” permit, which would allow them to remain in the country until they obtain a valid visa.
Under HB300, “Transition B” permits would be issued to undocumented families who overstayed their visas and worked illegally, participated in identity theft, or violated any other law. This permit would allow them to stay in the country for up to one year to put their affairs in order and pay a fine that would help supply an identity theft fund. Within one year of obtaining a Transition B permit, a family would be required to return to its countries of origin.
Both permits would waive the three- and 10-year bars to entry that illegal immigrants would normally face if they overstayed their visas. The permit-holders would also be required to have sponsors, much like legal immigrants.
“If there is any cost to society, then they will be responsible for it,” Herrod said.
Herrod said the rationale for waiving the bars to entry would remove the incentive for deported immigrants to re-enter the country illegally because they wouldn’t have to wait a set number of years before they could apply for a visa.
Banning immigrants from re-entering the country for a three- or 10-year period only gives them the incentive to come back illegally because they don’t want to wait that long to return, Herrod said.
Many people, including supporters of the Utah Compact and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, are wary of the repeal because it essentially undoes what was seen as a major breakthrough in immigration reform last year.
The LDS Church issued two statements last year that supported HB116 as a step in the right direction for immigration reform, while adhering to the principles of “loving thy neighbor,” strengthening families and reserving the right of the federal government to secure the nation’s borders.
“The Church appreciates the package of bills that the legislature had passed, including House Bill 116,” the Church said in a news release. “The Church feels that this package was a responsible attempt to address the principles outlined above.” As a matter of policy, the LDS Church discourages its members from entering any country without legal documentation, and from deliberately overstaying legal travel visas.
Herrod, an outspoken supporter of the Utah Compact and member of the LDS Church, said he believes HB300 fulfills the goals of the Utah Compact and the principles espoused by the LDS Church, but applies them differently than HB116 did.
The LDS Church did not comment on the proposed repeal, but reaffirmed the position it took in its previous statements, supporting the guest worker residency law.
Members of the Utah Compact, including the Utah Attorney General’s office, United Way of Salt Lake, the Salt Lake City Police Department and the Salt Lake Chamber, have acknowledged their continued support for HB116 and voiced disapproval of any bill that would repeal it.
Marty Carpenter of the Salt Lake City Chamber said almost no one would qualify under the new permit guidelines in HB 300 because it only deals with people with overstayed visas.
“What we’re in support of is Utah’s unique solution to the complex immigration issue,” he said. “We support the package of bills that were passed last year. It’s our position that it’s played a role in strengthening our state economy. We’re in opposition to any legislation that detracts from the Utah solution.”
Carpenter said immigrant workers help Utah’s economy.
“At the end of the day, we need an immigrant workforce in the state,” he said. “It grows the overall economic pie for us. Immigrant workers actually help us create more jobs by increasing our overall productivity.”
Voting on HB300 on the floor of Utah House of Representatives is pending.