SALT LAKE CITY — A bill to impose sanctions on Utah employers who fail to use E-Verify to determine a potential worker's immigration status was rejected then resurrected Wednesday.
Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem, had failed to get the bill filed by last Friday's deadline, which required him to ask the 75-member House to open a bill file. In a rare move, the House voted 37-36 against his motion Wednesday morning.
By the afternoon, Sandstrom found another route to get his bill before lawmakers. He said that he will run the legislation through a file that was opened by Rep. Don Ipson, R-St. George, in advance of the Feb. 3 deadline.
Sandstrom said he was "a little surprised" by the defeat of his motion to open the bill. Some lawmakers, as a matter of procedure, object to motions to open bill files after the deadline, he said.
The bill, which would not apply to agricultural industries, would establish statewide policy on using E-Verify — a Internet-based system that allows an employer to determine whether a job applicant is eligible to work in the U.S. It is run through the Department of Homeland Security.
"This is a good state law that would supersede the patchwork of laws in different counties," Sandstrom said, referring to Washington County and a handful of municipalities that have passed ordinances or resolutions that require businesses to check the legal status of workers using the federal E-Verify system or face the loss of their business licenses.
Those local governments are relying on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in May that says states have authority to sanction, but not fine, employers that hire undocumented workers. The decision applies strictly to governments' issuance or renewal of business licenses.
Under state law, businesses that contract with the state or its political subdivisions are required to verify whether their employees are legally entitled to work in the United States. The state law also applies to businesses that have 15 or more employees. Under federal law, use of E-Verify is voluntary, except for employers with federal contracts.
"All this bill does is put some teeth into the law," Sandstrom explained. Violators would be subject to warnings on their first offense. On subsequent offenses, temporary suspensions of business licenses would occur.
The bill, which Sandstrom said would be titled Employer Verification Amendments, should also help businesses that follow the law and help protect Utahns from identity theft when workers' documents are checked against federal databases, Sandstrom said.
In the House debate Wednesday morning, opposition to Sandstrom's effort to open a bill file came from both sides of the aisle.
Some suggested they had little appetite to delve further into immigration policy.
Rep. Bill Wright, R-Holden, who championed last year's controversial HB116, which includes E-Verify provisions, said the Legislature has already dealt with illegal immigration.
"I would suggest we're at a really good point right now," he said.
Wright said the state has already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend its enforcement-only illegal immigration law.
"E-Verify is not a good pathway where we want to go," he said. "It's much better for us as a state to just let this issue go."
Sandstrom countered with "if E-Verify is such a bad thing, why did we have it in HB116?"
Sandstrom argued that lawmakers must revisit E-Verify to bring Utah in line with a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that fining businesses that don't comply is unconstitutional.
"This is not a penalty on undocumented people. It is a penalty on businesses," said Sandstrom.
Sandstrom also said that Gov. Gary Herbert wants a discussion on this bill this session.
Rep. David Litvack, D-Salt Lake, said if this was such an important issue, Sandstrom should have filed the bill before last week's deadline. Nothing has changed between then and now to make it more critical, he said.
"I would suggest we have our plates full now and we don’t need another bill," he said.
House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, who voted against Sandstrom, said after the debate that Sandstrom discarding then bringing back the same bill was the biggest factor in the House vote.
“I think that had more influence on the body than the subject itself,” she said. “The Legislature did not abandon that bill. He did.”
Still, Lockhart said there is no need to push illegal immigration legislation through this session.
“This is one of those issues that we’re not pressed for time,” she said. “The passage of time will be a helpful thing on either side of the issue.”
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