SALT LAKE CITY — State lawmakers appear closer to assembling legislation to address illegal immigration in Utah, though not everyone is content with where it's headed.
"We're making progress," said Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo. "This is a very complex, emotionally charged issue."
That was borne out Tuesday during a legislative hearing in which tea party activists and 9-12ers packed the room to speak against his comprehensive reform bill. More than one of them raised their voices before the Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee.
"You people have degrees," 78-year-old Alexandra Eframo said loudly. "You should be intelligent."
The committee voted 7-1 to advance Bramble's SB288 to the Senate floor. The bill includes enforcement, a guest worker program, fines for being in the country illegally, employer sanctions and in-state tuition for those who obtain a guest worker permit.
"There's some teeth in this," he said.
But opponents say it will continue to make Utah look soft on illegal immigration. particularly because it has a guest worker provision.
"We are going to be leading the nation in amnesty, not a solution," said Alia Herrod, wife of Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo. The committee also heard Herrod's bill that would penalize employers that hire undocumented workers, but took no action on it.
Portions of Bramble's bill would require a federal waiver and the Legislature's own attorneys say some sections are unconstitutional. Absent a court injunction, Bramble said, the measure would become effective July 1, 2013 without federal approval.
In the end, he said, the measure "may be nothing more than a resolution on steroids" that spurs the federal government to action.
"If we can't compromise on some things here, it will be the status quo," said Senate Majority Whip Wayne Niederhauser, R- Sandy. "And the status quo doesn't work."
Bramble and Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem, have apparently taken that thought to heart. They reached an agreement Tuesday that will allow both of their bills to move forward. Sandstrom's proposal addresses only enforcement.
"I'm pleased," Sandstrom said. "We absolutely have to have enforcement."
Sandstrom said he is making changes to his enforcement bill and Bramble said he agreed to let it take precedence over the enforcement component of his bill if both should pass.
Sandstrom said while he cannot back a guest worker bill, he realized that Bramble, too, deserved to have his bill heard in the House. House and Senate Republicans had been at odds over whether Sandstrom’s bill would be heard in the Senate.
The deal was reached, Sandstrom said, as a result of negotiations that began Friday and continued through the weekend and the start of the final full week of the session.
Sandstrom received permission Tuesday from the House to put forth a new version of his bill with what he described as "one key change," dropping "reasonable suspicion" as a basis for police to check legal status.
"It completely eliminates racial profiling," Sandstrom said of the change, sought by both the Senate and Gov. Gary Herbert's office. Herbert has not endorsed any immigration legislation, but has made it clear he wants to see both enforcement and a guest worker program.
On Wednesday, Sandstrom, Bramble and Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, along with other lawmakers including Democratic leaders, will announce a new migrant worker bill.
That bill, Sandstrom said, will make it easier for Utah companies to get temporary visas for foreign workers. The bill is expected to migrant worker visa pilot program between Utah and Nuevo Leon, Mexico. It would be separate from the guest worker program in Bramble's bill.
The Salt Lake Chamber, which has weighed in on all the various illegal immigration bills, issued an open letter Tuesday urging lawmakers to refrain from passing either substantive or symbolic legislation that could hurt Utah's economy.
"In our judgment, immigrant-unfriendly, state-level legislation could have very real and potentially unintended consequences on the Utah economy," reads the letter signed by six economists including Kelly Mathews and Natalie Gochnour.
"Punitive immigration legislation – in substance or perception – could limit the labor force, diminish purchasing power, increase the cost of doing business, discourage outside investment and convention business, hinder people’s access to education and impair Utah’s reputation as a welcoming and friendly state."