SALT LAKE CITY — An illegal immigration proposal hyped as a solution reflective of Utah culture narrowly advanced from a Senate committee Wednesday.
Despite reservations about SB60, members of the Senate Judiciary, Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement Committee voted 3-2 to send it to the full Senate for further debate. Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, cast one of the dissenting votes.
Bill sponsor, Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake, said her plan for accountability and state-issued work permits would "bring some order to chaos created by the federal government" in not addressing the issue.
"There's is an appetite for something different," she said, noting her's is a comprehensive approach.
Proponents say it is in line with the Utah Compact and Gov. Gary Herbert's guiding principals for immigration reform.
Robles' now finds her bill in competition with another comprehensive proposal unveiled in concept Wednesday by Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo. His plan incorporates some aspects of her measure. She has yet to see the Bramble bill, but said she has worked and will continue to work with her colleague on his plan.
Robles' measure would require undocumented immigrants of working age to register for an "accountability card" every two years. Applicants would undergo a criminal background check. The card, which would include a photo, would be for work purposes only and not valid for identification. Card holders would also have to pass an English proficiency test within a year. All costs would be borne by the individual.
The Utah Department of Public Safety would run the program and maintain a database of applicants, according to the bill.
Legislative fiscal analysts estimate the bill would cost the department $14.5 million to administer in the first two years. It would generate $29.2 million over that period in fees and taxes.
Though he voted for the bill to ensure further debate, Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Lehi, said he can't support it in the current form. He said he'd rather see the program available to only those who overstayed their visas rather than "some who violated our sovereignty with their very first step into the country."
Robles said the more than 100,000 undocumented immigrants in the state know they don't have legal status, but are here to work.
"They want to do it the right way. The just haven't had the chance," she said.
Proponents say the measure would help identify criminals among Utah's illegal immigration population. "Those who choose not to participate in the program will likely have something to hide," said bill co-sponsor Rep. Jeremy Peterson, R-Ogden.
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff testified in favor of the bill, saying an enforcement-only approach would drive undocumented immigrants deeper into the shadows.
"Enforcement-only makes it difficult to do our jobs and makes Utah less safe," he said.
Robert Wren, of Utahns for Illegal Immigration Enforcement, opposed the bill.
"This is basically, if not amnesty, legalizing the illegals," he said. "That's all we're doing."
Robles said it does not change anyone's legal status. Unlike a guest worker permit, she said the accountability card would not amount to a working visa.
The bill prohibits businesses from hiring undocumented immigrants without a valid permit and imposes hefty fines for doing so.
Paul Mero, Sutherland Institute executive director, said it is not an employment bill for undocumented workers.
"It's an accountability bill that protects our public safety and, in that process, permits people of good will to provide for their families until the federal government decides what it will do," he said.
Some aspects of the proposal would require federal approval. ACLU legislative and policy analyst Marina Low said it's unrealistic to expect that because the bill isn't constitutional.
"We think there needs to be a solution but one that compromises constitutional principles is not the way to go," she said.