State Immigration Bills: Utah’s Unique Approach

In recent months, several states have ventured onto federal turf, passing immigration legislation of their own, in the hope that local remedies will succeed where Congress fears to tread. For the most part, these state measures are all about enforcement, allowing local police to “step into the shoes” of federal immigration officials and demand that people – when lawfully stopped – present proof of legal immigration status. In other words, most states have followed the lead of Arizona’s S.B. 1070.

Utah came up with its own unique approach. On March 10, 2011, shortly before adjourning for the year, the Utah state legislature passed three immigration reform bills: one enforcement bill, a milder version of Arizona’s; another providing a sort of amnesty, under a state-level guest-worker program; a third establishing a migrant-worker program for certain Mexican laborers. (See Utah Becomes a Pioneer on Immigration, by David Montero, The Salt Lake Tribune, 11.Mar.2011.)

According to Bloomberg Businessweek, the enforcement law, although milder than Arizona’s, is “still likely to be litigated.” (See Lawsuits Threatened Over Utah Immigration Bills, by Josh Loftin, Bloomberg Businessweek, 10.Mar.2011.) Businessweek reports that, under the measure:

Police would be required to check the immigrant status of anyone stopped for a felony or serious misdemeanor. A person stopped for lesser infractions would be questioned at the discretion of the officer, and only if a person does not have valid identification.

Whether the distinction between lesser and more serious offenses makes any difference in practice remains to be seen, if in fact the bill is ever implemented. In any case, it’s not Utah’s watered-down version of S.B. 1070 that makes this so extraordinary; it’s the state’s simultaneous attempt to provide legal cover for undocumented immigrants. According to the Washington Post, the measure “would grant work permits to undocumented immigrants, and their immediate families, who pay a fine, clear a criminal background check and study English.” (See The ‘Utah Way’ Toward Immigration Reform, by Lee Hockstader, The Washington Post, 11.Mar.2011.) (One wonders what the purpose of the ID check might be if the state is freely minting its own residency permits anyway; is this only designed to catch undocumented immigrants who are visiting Utah?)

As the Washington Post pointed out, the irony here is that the amnesty-like provision was passed in a very conservative state, a fact that may create problems for fellow conservatives in other states, who largely favor the enforcement-only approach followed by Arizona. The article notes that many prominent GOP members, such as Karl Rove, Jeb Bush, and Newt Gingrich, “have distanced themselves from that approach and warned of the peril it poses for the party,” especially as the Latino voting block gains in strength and numbers.

It’s not clear whether Utah’s approach will be – or even could be – duplicated elsewhere. Utah made news last fall when a broad coalition of Utah church leaders and politicians signed a statement of principles called The Utah Compact, calling for federal solutions to our immigration problems, law enforcement that focuses on crimes instead of immigration status, respect for family ties, and noting that “Utah is best served by a free-market philosophy that maximizes individual freedom and opportunity. We acknowledge the role immigrants play as workers and taxpayers. Utah’s immigration policies must reaffirm our global reputation as a welcoming and business-friendly state.” (See Official Text of Utah Compact Declaration on Immigration Reform, Deseret News, 12.Nov.2010.)

Under the boldface heading, “A Free Society,” the final section of the Utah Compact says:

Immigrants are integrated into communities across Utah. We must adopt a humane approach to this reality, reflecting our unique culture, history, and spirit of inclusion. The way we treat immigrants will say more about us as a free society and less about our immigrant neighbors. Utah should always be a place that welcomes people of goodwill.

Even if one does not agree with every word of this, it is hard to deny that The Utah Compact reflects a generosity of spirit that is sorely lacking in our immigration debate. Perhaps this explains the Utah legislature’s willingness to work out a compromise on a difficult and polarizing issue.

Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.