SALT LAKE CITY — A bill that essentially gives the federal government time to "put on its big boy pants and do its job" with respect to immigration reform is the wisest course, a Utah County lawmaker told a Senate committee Wednesday.
Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, said she was not serving in the Legislature when Utah's controversial guest worker law was passed but that delaying its implementation until 2015 would buy time.
"I have a number of concerns," she said.
After sometimes heated debate on the bill and the issue of immigration itself, the committee endorsed SB225, which delays the implementation of laws created by HB116 and HB469, a pilot program to allow Utahns to sponsor foreign nationals.
The lone dissenter was Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, who argued for letting the guest worker bill go into effect July 1.
But Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, sponsor of the bill to delay the laws' enacting date, said putting it into effect without a needed federal waiver would imperil employers who hired people under the law's provisions.
Hinkins countered that the federal government had done a poor job of enforcing its own immigration laws, therefore it was doubtful the Obama administration would take action against Utah.
"Would they prosecute us when they're not prosecuting anyone else?" he asked.
While acknowledging that HB116 "was not a perfect bill," Bramble said the package of bills passed by Legislature in 2011 was the result of the federal government's "abject, dismal, pathetic failure to act."
An argument could be made to allow Utah's law to go into effect if Congress does not reform the nation's immigration laws, Bramble said. That would likely trigger a legal challenge on its constitutionality.
Given the rhetoric in Washington from Congress and the administration suggesting there is momentum for immigration reform, "the states are taking a wait-and-see approach," Bramble said.
Some members of the public who testified before the committee said Utah's guest worker bill should be repealed instead of extended because it is constitutionally flawed and unworkable.
Mark Alvarez, a Spanish language radio talk show host and attorney, said implementation of the law requires the federal government to grant a waiver of federal immigration law.
"They don't exist in the immigration system," Alvarez said. "I don't think any reputable immigration attorney is going to come up and say that they do."
Instead of delaying the law's implementation, state lawmakers need to take the opportunity to repeal HB116, said Ron Mortensen of the Utah Coalition on Illegal Immigration.
The law makes it less expensive to hire undocumented immigrants, Mortensen said, because it does not require employers to pay unemployment insurance on their behalf.
"It does require employers to violate federal law by not paying payroll taxes to the federal government," he said.
Moreover, workers would be unable to "regularize their status if they lose their work permit," Mortensen said.
Bramble said Mortensen could ask another lawmaker to sponsor legislation to repeal HB116. Bramble said his bill envisions giving Congress, in its current two-year term, time to deliver on promised reforms.
Nonetheless, Mortensen challenged members of the committee to read HB116 in its entirety and judge for themselves if it is a model for the nation.
Bruce Johnson of the Utah Tax Commission said there was a practical reason to delay implementation of the law. Since HB116's passage in 2011, the Legislature has not funded the $1 million in costs the Tax Commission would incur developing "a parallel tax system to accommodate this."
Since the 2011 session, the commission has reminded state lawmakers that the work required under the bill has not been funded.
"We're now in a situation we still don't have the money and we don't have the time. We can't meet the requirements of the bill," Johnson said.