Utah Bill Letting Undocumented Work and Live There Legally Is Headed to Governor's Desk

With the stroke of a pen, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert is poised to make the Beehive State the first to give undocumented immigrants living in it the right to work.

Sitting on his desk is a bill passed by the Utah legislature that would allow people who were in the United States illegally before this May to obtain a permit to live and work in Utah. Their immediate relatives also would be able to live lawfully in Utah.

The bill, being watched closely nationwide, is the only one of its kind in the United States.

The bill’s sponsor, State Rep. Bill Wright, a self-described conservative Republican, says that quite frankly, the measure addresses the fact that in certain jobs, immigrants who lack documents are better workers than Americans.

“It’s become a labor issue,” Wright said about the immigration debate. The need in Utah and elsewhere for their labor, he said, “is the reason they’re here.”

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“In certain fields, we’re not as productive, that’s why it’s difficult for us to compete with them,” Wright said. “We’re spoiled rotten.”

Another bill passed by state legislators gives police officers the option of checking the immigration status of people they stop for a felony or serious misdemeanor.

Utah’s comprehensive approach to the undocumented underscores the competing solutions -- tough enforcement vs. integration -- that people on both sides of the immigration debate have pushed forth as a way to address illegal immigration.

And the tensions in the legislature over the bills – particularly the one giving a break to undocumented immigrants -- is illustrative of a broader fissure within the GOP about how to deal with illegal immigration.

The most ardent and vocal critic of Wright’s bill, for instance, is a fellow conservative Republican, Rep. Chris Herrod.

He sees the bill as a reward to lawbreakers.

“It’s a slap in the face, an atrocious kick in the face, to anyone who has tried, or is trying, to come into this country legally, or is trying to bring family into this country legally, ” Herrod said.

“Any behavior you reward you’re going to get more of,” he said. “I’ve been outside U.S. embassies [in other countries], I’ve seen parents in tears when they get denied visas.”

Wright’s depiction of U.S. workers’ productivity and work ethic, Herrod said, “is absolutely offensive to the average American worker.”

Herrod said that he sees numerous examples on a regular basis of people who are working in jobs for which they are overqualified.

Like many proponents of tough immigration enforcement, Herrod says that undocumented immigrants must not be given a break, particularly at a time when many Americans are out of work.

“In Utah, we have 160,000 illegal aliens in the state, and we have roughly that amount of unemployment,” Herrod said.

The governor, a Republican, is expected to either sign or veto the bills, perhaps as early as this month.

While the governor last year said he would sign a bill cracking down on illegal immigration, he also indicated that he would support measures that provided a respite to some undocumented immigrants who filled a labor demand.

Recently, however, spokespeople for the governor have said only that he will be reviewing the measures.

The federal government would need to take the unprecedented step of giving Utah a waiver before the state could implement the law to allow undocumented immigrants to work in the state. Federal laws prohibit the employment of undocumented immigrants.

Wright’s bill would require that undocumented immigrants seeking a work permit pass a state and FBI criminal background check, remain employed for at least a year, have a “driving card” and make an earnest effort to become proficient in English, among other things.

The bill’s supporters, who include those in Utah’s tourism and business industries – which rely heavily on immigrant workers – pushed hard for its passage.

The bill’s passage also depended greatly on the support of the Mormon Church, which holds considerable political influence in Utah.

Another measure would allow Utah to bring workers from Mexico for jobs that cannot be filled with workers in the United States.

Herrod said he does not oppose that one, because the workers would be people who go through the legal channels to come to the United States, and would be providing labor in areas where a U.S. employer must prove that he or she could not find qualified or willing American workers.

Utah's dairy farmers, Herrod said, often struggle trying to find workers.

For his part, Wright balked at his critics’ contention that his work permit bill rewards lawbreakers.

“We’ve wrapped this issue in a lot of different negative ways,” Wright said. “We say, ‘They’re criminals, they’re villains, they broke the law.’”

Meanwhile, Wright said, the federal government has left the issue of illegal immigration largely untouched. And like other states, he said, Utah is taking matters into its own hands, in the hope that the federal government will be forced to step up to the plate.

“The root of this discussion is productivity,” he said, scoffing at the assertion that his bill rewards lawbreakers. “People inside our own country break the law everyday – they speed, they cheat on taxes.”

Americans must not think of themselves as entitled to employment simply because they were born here, he said.

“The entitlement is to live here and be free,” he said. “But people think because you’re born here there’s an employment entitlement, that someone owes you employment. They think, ‘I have a right to that job, I’m going to charge what I want for my labor even if I’m not productive.’”

Wrong, he said.

“Employment is not an entitlement we should have as Americans,” he said.

“Up to now, American employers have not barred Americans from taking those jobs,” Wright said. “It’s through their [Americans’] unwillingness to perform those jobs that these [immigration] issues have come about.”

Undocumented immigrants who are not working, or who are not an asset to a U.S. employer, he said, “need to go” back to their homelands.

But those who believe that a hard-line immigration policy is the real solution to illegal immigration—Herrod among them—are not convinced.

They fear that Utah is rolling out the red carpet to undocumented immigrants from around the country.

“When we do this, we’re picking and choosing winners based on their willingness to break the law,” Herrod said.

“This is not who Utah is,” he said. “Utah has been viewed traditionally as a conservative state.”

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Follow politics and immigration reporter Elizabeth Llorente on Twitter: @LlorenteLatino